Demobilizing Effort Could End, PM Says

Cambodia’s troubled efforts to shrink its military and provide training for retiring soldiers may come to an end because promised World Bank funds have not materialized, Prime Minister Hun Sen said unexpectedly on Monday.

“The government is ready to demobilize 15,000 soldiers, but it is in trouble. The World Bank does not want to fund the first phase,” he said. “We will definitely not demobilize if the World Bank does not fund.”

The warning comes after months of delays in the government’s demobilization program, which in its second year this year was scheduled to retire 30,000 soldiers, including many ill or lame infantrymen, leaving a standing army of close to 100,000 troops.

Some 15,000 soldiers were released from service last year and were supposed to receive $240 in cash along with aid packages of motorcycles, cows, housing materials, sewing machines and clothing worth about $1,200 per soldier. But delays in the program meant that few of the soldiers ever saw the aid.

A World Bank official strongly denied that the agency was withholding funds for the program and said Cambodian officials as recently as last week were preparing paperwork to withdraw $18.4 million in World Bank funds to purchase aid packages for the soldiers.

“It’s incredible,” said Gillian Brown, of the World Bank’s Bangkok office. “The World Bank is ready to release the funds as soon as the government requests them.”

She said the government was making progress on a complicated set of tasks for purchasing the aid packages with the World Bank money. Bids had already been received from a number of international vendors and consideration began on Aug 14, Brown said.

Bonaventure Mbida-Essama, the World Bank’s representative in Cambodia, told Agence France-Presse last week that Cambodia has a “weak institutional framework,” which makes it difficult and time-consuming for the bank to ensure “funds are used in a transparent way.”

“There are tensions because the government wanted to go very quickly. They do not have experience with this sort of thing. From the very start they expressed their impatience,” he said.

The only soldiers to receive their full aid packages were 1,500 involved in a $2.5 million pilot project agreed to in February 2000 and launched later that year. Donors involved in the program have included Japan, Sweden, the Netherlands and Canada.

The full project was expected to cost $45 million, or about $1,500 per soldier for 30,000 soldiers. The government or international donors were asked to pay the remainder of the program not covered by the World Bank.

Shuttering the government’s demobilization program would actually help the soldiers, argued one observer.

Geoffrey Blume of the GEB Development Corporation said the current demobilization effort has been rife with corruption and delays that have left soldiers with nothing to show for years of government service.

“That’s the best news I’ve heard all day,” Blume said, reaction to news that Hun Sen had threatened to close the program. “We can restructure it.”

Blume has touted his own Veterans’ Home Program to the government, saying it only needs donor funds to provide homes and training to each of the retiring soldiers. He said the government’s program, administered by Minister of Cabinet Sok An and Council of Ministers Undersecretary of State Svay Sitha, has been mismanaged.

Prince Sisowath Sirirath, co-minister of defense, said the program was delayed this year because government officials were still evaluating the first stage, which saw 15,000 soldiers released last year. He said the military today has 111,232 soldiers.

(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)



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