Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday warned officials at the Ministry of Social Affairs they could face prosecution over the embezzlement of veterans’ pensions.
“I would like to make a public warning since some officials sponge off of disabled and retired veterans. Under the anti-corruption law, they are required to be arrested,” Mr Hun Sen said in an address at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh to mark Cambodia’s Veterans Day.
The remarks were the premier’s first direct condemnation of widespread pension fraud. To avoid difficulties in receiving payment, many veterans sell their identity documents to officials who buy them in bulk to collect the pension payments over time, according to the Social Affairs Ministry.
“Concerning this, there will not be an understanding next time. You cannot continue to act in anarchy like this,” Mr Hun Sen said. “If this happens from now on, there will be an arrest at the scene since the Anticorruption Unit has found out all about this.”
Mr Hun Sen, who has been president of the Cambodian Veterans Association since its formation in 2007, has previously urged those who purchased the pension books of disabled veterans to return them to their rightful owners.
The temptation for disabled veterans to sell their identities is fuelled by administrative and logistical difficulties in making regular trips with their pension books to pick up their monthly pensions, according to SRP officials.
However, Mr Hun Sen attributed the motivation to sell as “due to the bureaucracy, and officials taking advantage of our ignorant fellows who are tired of going to get their pension as it is too far away to travel.”
The prime minister said that the government had kept track of those who were involved with buying and selling the pension identities.
“Veterans officials in the provinces, watch out,” Mr Hun Sen warned.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Social Affairs, Lim El Djurado, said the government was also working to clear “ghost names” from the pension system.
“We are updating the data so the dead are eliminated and if a buyer uses their name we will know,” Mr El Djurado said, adding the government planned to disband the book system in favor of bank accounts once accurate information on veterans’ entitlements was ascertained.
“We have been looking at this problem since 2005,” Mr El Djurado said. “We found that between 2,000 and 3,000 pension books per year are fraudulently traded.”
Mr El Djurado said no arrests had yet been made but officials involved in the fraudulent dealings should know they have been blamed and warned.
“If we find out a pension does not belong to its owner, we will make it invalid,” he said.
Ith Sam Heng, minister of social affairs, declined to comment on Mr Hun Sen’s warning.
Chan Soveth, chief monitor at the human rights group Adhoc, said he was aware of fraudulent pension trading and that a safer and easier process needed to be provided.
“It is hard for veterans to go and get their pension with their pension book,” Mr Soveth said. “The veterans are poor, and so they will decide to sell their identities to traders.”
“If there is no proper solution, it will only discourage people,” said Mr Soveth. “It must be a clear as to who can get the pension and where they can get it.”