Health Minister Mam Bunheng gave often vague and indirect answers to questions posed by opposition lawmakers at a special meeting of the National Assembly on Thursday, leaving the CNRP dissatisfied with its first shot at questioning a minister at a plenary session since the 2013 national elections.
Since ending its boycott of parliament in 2014 over disputed election results, the CNRP said its powers to question ruling-party ministers before the National Assembly would bring new transparency and accountability to often murky government business.
But Thursday’s exercise left the opposition with just as many questions as it had going in.
The CNRP had called Mr. Bunheng to answer questions over a number of concerns, including bribes the National Malaria Center’s former director took to award millions of dollars worth of mosquito net contracts, opaque land swaps between the ministry and private companies, and drug prices.
Asked to shed light on the bribes that Malaria Center director Duong Socheat received to secure the contracts—revealed in a 2013 report by the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria—the health minister deferred questions to the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU).
“The purchase of mosquito nets using the Global Fund budget was a while ago and this issue is not the Health Ministry’s job to solve,” he said.
Despite the damning evidence against Mr. Socheat in the Global Fund report, including emails he sent directing unofficial payments to dubious accounts, the ACU has used a variety of arguments to claim that he could not be prosecuted.
As for the CNRP’s concerns of shady land swaps that may have netted favored private developers with prime real estate at bargain prices, Mr. Bunheng simply said the ministry had acted “in compliance with the state’s procedures” and made public announcements.
Unsatisfied, opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang asked why the ministry sold the former site of the Malaria Center in central Phnom Penh for $1,500 per square meter when it was worth twice that.
“We respect and follow the state’s procedures,” the minister repeated.
Mr. Chhay Eang also asked why some private companies were selling some drugs to the government at more than three times the going rate, citing one example based on an invoice he had obtained.
Mr. Bunheng said the opposition lawmaker was oversimplifying the situation.
“We cannot use just one kind of medicine for comparison,” he said. “Because it’s a package bid [with many drugs] so we can ensure a sustainable supply of medicine.”
Contacted after the session, Mr. Chhay Eang said the minister’s responses had left the opposition unsatisfied and that the party would discuss what steps to take next.
“We are not satisfied with his answers because his answers did not really answer the questions directly,” he said.
Neither Prime Minister Hun Sen nor acting CNRP President Kem Sokha, the minority leader in parliament, attended the session.