A substantial amount of money for the Cambodian Mine Action Center’s governing council has been frozen by the Finance Ministry pending the recovery of funds discovered missing during a recent audit of the agency’s bookkeeping, according to ministry and CMAC officials.
“No money is being dispersed [to CMAC] right now,” Finance Minister Keat Chhon said Wednesday at the ministry.
Keat Chhon wouldn’t say how much money the government is withholding from the nation’s largest demining agency. But CMAC sources said the amount must be between $210,000 and a little over $1 million.
Both Keat Chhon and Finance Secretary of State Ouk Rabun implied that ministry’s move is a temporary suspension. They said ministry officials have begun to discuss how to proceed.
The two senior finance officials both indicated they want CMAC Chairman Ieng Mouly to account for an estimated $100,000 in missing funds set aside for the governing council.
Auditors reported in early July as much as $100,000 given to the governing council by the government between 1995 and 1998 could not be accounted for.
Ieng Mouly, who is the president of the council, said Tuesday the Finance Ministry was blocking funds while CMAC attempted to account for the missing money. But he downplayed the significance of the findings in the auditor’s report, saying only about $18,000 is unaccounted for.
He said the agency’s demining efforts were being hindered by the Finance Ministry’s decision.
“The decision…creates a new serious difficult situation for CMAC, which is under strong pressure of donor countries,” Ieng Mouly wrote in an Aug 19 letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Keat Chhon.
Demining operations at Preah Vihear temple on the Thai border are being threatened by the decision, Ieng Mouly wrote.
He also claimed in the letter the suspension of funding will prevent Cambodia from sending a delegation to Canada next year, where Ieng Mouly is slated to co-chair an international forum on demining.
“If the government stops giving money then maybe we have to stop some things ourselves,” Ieng Mouly said Tuesday.
Keat Chhon did not respond Wednesday to questions about Ieng Mouly’s letter, saying he had not had time to study it yet.
Some observers say the funding freeze should have no impact on demining operations. “The closest this comes to demining is paying rent on some buildings,” said one western CMAC adviser.
Ieng Mouly might be trying to use the fact that CMAC funds from some donor countries are being withheld to bully the Finance Ministry into releasing the rest of the governing council’s money, sources from several CMAC donor nations said.
The government provides funds for at least one-tenth of CMAC’s total operating budget, sources said.
Keat Chhon suggested restructuring the way money goes from the government to CMAC.
Currently the government’s contribution is put directly in CMAC accounts, but Keat Chhon said he would like that money first to go to the UNDP and then CMAC.
The measure would help prevent CMAC officials from double billing the government and UNDP, Keat Chhon said.
Approximately $1.8 million was budgeted by the government this year for CMAC.
Ieng Mouly said Tuesday he doesn’t believe the Finance Ministry’s decision should be linked to alleged wrongdoing inside CMAC, pointing out several measures have already been taken to prop up the ailing agency.
The agency has been criticized for not being able to account for up to 40 percent of the land it demined last year. There have also been cases of CMAC crews filing reports for work allegedly done on assigned minefields when they instead had been demining private property for cash.
Sam Sotha was fired last month as CMAC director general following the discovery of mismanagement and misallocation of funds inside the agency.
It was Sam Sotha who asked for a total of $75,000 in cash advances for the governing council’s coffers in June and July, according to CMAC documents. Sam Sotha requested that Ieng Mouly transfer the money out of a CMAC development fund into the council’s account.
The advances were earmarked for building rental, council member salaries, operating costs and miscellaneous hospitality expenses, according to CMAC documents. One CMAC source said, however, there were no records on how the money was spent.
According to the requests for both months, Sam Sotha maintained that the council’s fund balance was dangerously low—at one point only $330.
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)