The government fired a top official at the scandal-wracked Cambodian Mine Action Center this week, as part of a major reshuffling demanded by donors outraged by revelations of fraud and mismanagement.
Prime Minister Hun Sen named a replacement Monday for CMAC Director General Sam Sotha, the man who has run the day-to-day operations of the agency since 1995. Lieutenant General Khem Sophoan, RCAF’s chief military training officer, will take over at a formal handover ceremony expected next week, CMAC announced Wednesday.
“With the present situation, we need a change of management,’’ CMAC Chairman Ieng Mouly said. “It is very important to all of us. CMAC needs to respond to the expectations of the Cambodian people, and also world donors. Without donor support, we cannot work.’’
CMAC received more than $20 million from foreign donors last year—more than any other government agency—for its work to remove the millions of mines that continue to maim and kill scores of Cambodians each month.
Sam Sotha’s sacking comes nearly four months after revelations the agency billed the government for $90,000 in fraudulent salaries and that an international audit would be conducted. Since then, the scandal has mushroomed to become a public relations disaster and cast the future of the once respected demining agency into doubt.
Initial audits and reports have shown that the agency billed the government for $500,000 in fraudulent salaries, that senior officials drew personal loans out of government funds, and that ownership of 39 percent of land demined last year is in dispute. In addition, reports show that donor funds may have been used to clear land now operated as a plantation by a former Khmer Rouge commander charged with kidnapping three tourists from donor nations.
CMAC’s donors called the removal of Sam Sotha from his position “drastic,’’ but stressed it is only part of what is needed to restore their confidence.
“I and the other donors have talked about the need for a management shakeup and we left how it was done up to the government because it’s their business,’’ Canadian Ambassador Gordon Longmuir said.
Said Bill Costello, Australia’s first secretary in charge of development cooperation: “Personnel changes are welcome, but they are certainly not enough. This is the beginning of the process needed to restore donor confidence.’’
Sam Sotha on Wednesday said he had “no regrets,’’ defended his record and said he is proud of what he has accomplished during his time at CMAC.
“As long as CMAC prospers in demining operations, I am happy,’’ he said. “I will sacrifice everything….If my departure makes CMAC come back from this turbulence, I am very happy.’’
But he added: “Why did it just explode instantly? Not before? I am very sad…one or two donors showed muscle. Many others recognized I [contribute].’’
Sam Sotha attributed CMAC’s problems in part to its rapid growth, stressing that it was an emergency-response agency that is now helping the nation develop. He said its staff has doubled, and that it has become “well-known as the best worldwide.’’
He complained that donors demanded the agency to be “100 percent’’ perfect without providing enough assistance. Aid agencies left technical adviser slots vacant for months at a time, while many foreign technical advisers “came here, many of them not capable enough to run the show.’’
“Frankly I don’t want to call them technical advisers, I want them to be called international staff,’’ he said. “They should be responsible.’’
Ieng Mouly did not defend Sam Sotha. But he too maintained technical advisers were partially to blame. “I was surprised,’’ by the revelations, Ieng Mouly said. “CMAC is not just run alone by Cambodians. CMAC is run by the UN international staff. So I think we had hoped in the past that everything had been under control in a way that was in conformity with international standards.’’
Ieng Mouly declined to elaborate beyond referring to a June 9 letter to Jean-Claude Rogivue, the acting country representative of the UN Development Program. In the letter, Ieng Mouly asked for the replacement of the donor community’s top adviser to the agency, Richard Warren, arguing he “does not possess the necessary qualities to cope with the challenges facing CMAC.’’
Three top technical advisers in the agency quit last month and accused Warren of colluding with Sam Sotha to squash damning information and of impeding their efforts to reform the agency. Other current CMAC employees have voiced similar accusations.
But Warren has denied the allegations and the donor community has consistently defended him. UNDP officials did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. In the past, Rogivue has expressed “confidence in [Warren’s] integrity’’ and said Warren will leave after a “transition period.’’
Longmuir said Wednesday that “it’s up to CMAC to manage itself. That’s part of the problem. They’ve got to learn to do that.’’
Of Sam Sotha’s charges that technical advisers were responsible for the problems, Longmuir responded, “The man has just been fired so I suppose he’s looking for a scapegoat.’’
Several donors and CMAC staffers praised the choice of Khem Sophoan, one of the highest-ranking generals who has worked with donor countries providing training to RCAF soldiers. Costello noted he has a reputation for “personal integrity and honesty, which is very encouraging if correct.’’
Reached by phone, Khem Sophoan said he will step down from his military post. He said he will meet with CMAC department directors upon taking the post for a “briefing on their rules and activities.’’ Then he will study reforms and ways to get the finance system under control.
“This is an honor the government has appointed me at a time when CMAC is in crisis,’’ he said.
Khem Sophoan joined the army in 1970 and led a military instruction center during the Lon Nol regime. He got military training in South Vietnam in 1971, and in the US in 1993. During the Pol Pot regime, he said he was a “farmer in Battambang.’’
In 1979, he joined the Khmer People’s National Liberation Front, where he fought against Vietnamese-led Phnom Penh and met Ieng Mouly. Khem Sophoan said he had no political party affiliation.
As for his future, Sam Sotha said: “The Prime Minister told me he will keep me close to him and assist with overseas demining. I really love challenges.’’