Donors: CMAC Will Survive Despite Turmoil Removed

To Prime Minister Hun Sen, Thursday’s symposium on the future of the scandal-plagued Cam­bodian Mine Action Center was a matter of life or death.

“You meeting here today is like a hospital,” he told a group of in­ter­national donors, whose contributions finance the country’s largest demining operations. “You will decide, will CMAC live or die?”

But British Ambassador George Edgar said that while he ap­preciated the analogy, he thought the patient was healthier than news accounts indicate.

“Prospects for recovery are quite good,” he said, as long as CMAC shows it has learned from past mistakes by installing safeguards to prevent future wrongdoing.

The symposium ended with no action by participants, other than a chance to air their concerns and thoughts about the troubled agency.

CMAC, once the darling of the donor community, ran into trouble last year, when it became mired in reports of corruption.

Donor nations were furious to learn that money they had given to rid Cambodia of mines was being used to clear land owned by politically connected people, while military officers and police were taking land supposedly demined for poor families.

Donations plunged from more than $20 million in 1998 to about $5 million currently. The agency this month furloughed about     70 percent of its approximately 3,000 staff, saying it is out of money.

In what was timed to be a supportive move, Samuel de Beau­vais, ambassador-at-large in charge of coordinating French demining activities, told reporters during the morning coffee break that France will donate $1 million to CMAC and leave the door open for future funding.

“It will depend on how the money is disbursed,” he said. “If things go well, it could possibly become more.”

But while the Cambodian government insisted it has learned from the past, some of the proposed changes aired at the day-long meeting raised eyebrows.

For example, the centerpiece of the government’s reform effort has been to split CMAC into two agencies: CMAC itself, and a new organization established in September, called the Cambo­dian Mine Action Authority.

The idea is for CMAC to con­cen­trate on demining, while the new agency regulates demining activities, from licensing deminers to maintaining a national database and deciding—with local input—which areas to demine.

The problem for some donors was that the new agency is headed by Sam Sotha, the former head of CMAC who was fired last year as the scandals unfolded.

A later financial audit by KPMG cleared the agency of financial fraud charges, but said that during Sam Sotha’s tenure, CMAC had suffered from “serious managerial deficiencies.”

Since then Sam Sotha has been an adviser to the prime minister on demining issues and their relationship remains close.

Hun Sen said Thursday that firing Sam So­tha was one of the hardest things he had to do as prime minister.

“Only CMAC caused me to shed tears,” he said.

Sam Sotha repeated the prime minister’s plea for funding Thurs­day, saying demining operations will need support for the next five to 10 years and donors are welcome to monitor the money in any way they wish.

Khem Sophoan, CMAC director-general, said the agency has worked hard to implement re­forms urged by KPMG, including setting up budget controls, cutting administrative jobs and including local officials when deciding what lands to demine.

He said mine incidents have dropped from an average of 250 a month in 1997 to about 60 today, “and we hope to get it down to between one and five,” he said.




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