Finance Minister Keat Chhon on Tuesday criticized the Ministry of Rural Development’s plan to shuffle responsibilities but not punish anyone for rural road project mismanagement revealed in recent months.
“I am not satisfied with [the proposed action]. I have to find more specific answers,” said Keat Chhon, responding to a plan devised by the Rural Development Ministry last week. “Someone has to pay for the wrongdoing. Everything has its price.”
The Rural Development Ministry decided last week to create a new team headed by Undersecretary of State Ngy Champal to oversee rural infrastructure projects. But the plan does not include any punishment of officials, according to a copy of the ministry’s letter dated Dec 21.
Rural Development Minister Chhim Seak Leng on Tuesday defended the plan.
“I’ve known Mr Keat Chhon wants to punish [the officials involved], but I cannot do that because I don’t want to split the ministry. The best way [to solve the controversial issue] is forgive them and give them another chance. I am sure that my ministry won’t make any more mistakes.”
At the center of the controversy are six rural road projects, for which the Rural Development Ministry sought in May a total of $570,000 in reimbursement. The request was made to the Finance Ministry for disbursement out of a special Japanese aid account.
Japanese Embassy officials later found that one of the six projects appeared to be built for private use, and two other roads already had been paid for by another foreign donor. A subsequent Finance Ministry investigation concluded only one of the six projects qualified for reimbursement.
Japanese Ambassador Masaki Saito urged the Cambodian government to punish those involved in wrongdoing. In a letter dated Dec 1, Keat Chhon also called on the Rural Development Ministry to punish officials involved in mismanagement, saying that the action was critical to obtaining a portion of Japanese aid.
Saito is in Japan and could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But embassy officials said the Japanese government has not changed its position. “Officials involved in the wrongdoing should not be allowed to keep the same positions at the ministry,” Saito said earlier this month.
While the amount in controversy is relatively small, it could affect the future of a Japanese aid program that is not tied to specific projects but instead goes into the government treasury. The grant aid, which totaled $61 million between 1994-96, was halted when the International Monetary Fund suspended its loans in late 1996, but recently the Japanese had started discussions with Cambodian officials about resuming aid.
In his comments earlier this month, Saito maintained that Japan would not resume the so-called non-project grant aid unless the government takes disciplinary measures.
With Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi now slated to visit Cambodia on Jan 10, pressure is increasing for Cambodian government officials to resolve the situation.
Top officials of all ministries met Monday to prepare for a request for Japanese aid.
Keat Chhon indicated Tuesday that he is turning up the heat on the Rural Development Ministry to take action.
“I spoke to [Chhim Seak Leng] at the [Council for the Development of Cambodia] yesterday that ‘someone has to pay,’ ” Keat Chhon said.
Chhim Seak Leng confirmed that Keat Chhon called the Rural Development Ministry “a fish bone stuck in Cambodia’s throat” during Monday’s meeting and urged the ministry to punish the officials or find another way to solve the problem.
Chhim Seak Leng acknowledged wrongdoing had occurred with the rural road projects but he reiterated that identifying officials would split the political integrity of the ministry.
“That’s why we chose the alternative solution, creating a new team,” Chhim Seak Leng said. “I do want peace in my ministry. We do not want to get any grant aid if it splits officials in the government.”
Chhim Seak Leng also defended his selection of Ngy Champal to run the new team, maintaining that he is capable and loyal to the ministry. Ngy Champal has been in charge of the public investment projects, including the six rural road projects, but his name has not appeared in any official disbursement requests.
Rural Development Secretary of State Yim Chhai Ly, who oversaw the six projects and requested the disbursement, and Planning Department Chief Ly Proh admitted in July that the ministry had submitted false documents indicating the projects were under construction rather than already completed.
Yim Chhai Ly on Tuesday refused to comment on the issue, saying he was busy with meetings.
But he has argued that the reimbursement still was justified and that Japan is overstating the seriousness of the matter.
“It’s not a big problem,” Yim Chhai Ly said in mid-December. “I will show officials of the Japanese Embassy and the Finance Ministry that the Japanese money would be used for people in Cambodia who need quality roads.”