Senior government officials were tight-lipped yesterday on the subject of Education Minister Im Sethy’s heated public criticism of the Ministry of Finance during a workshop in Phnom Penh on Wednesday.
During the workshop, hosted by the European Union, Mr. Sethy accused the Finance Ministry of repeatedly refusing to disburse funds to the education sector, pointing a finger at a senior finance official as he spoke.
In rare public criticism of government policy by one of its own senior officials, Mr. Sethy declared that the education sector is severely underfunded, having received a smaller proportion of the total national budget every year since 2007.
But yesterday, colleagues at both ministries were silent on Mr. Sethy’s candid speech.
“I’m sorry. There’s nothing to say,” said Thuong Borann, director of the Education Ministry’s finance department.
“I have no information about this,” said Kim Phalla, director of the Finance Ministry’s policy department. “I cannot answer right now.”
Oum Sarith, one of two newly appointed spokesmen for the Senate—which approved this year’s $3.1 billion budget on December 14—said the contents of Mr. Sethy’s speech were a “government” matter.
“It’s the issue of the government, so you should ask the government. I dare not comment,” Mr. Sarith said.
Mam Bunneang, the other Senate spokesman, also declined to comment on the inter-ministry spat.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the Education Minister, who could not be contacted yesterday, should speak for himself.
“You should ask Minister Im Sethy about why he is frustrated,” Mr. Siphan said.
While members of the ruling CPP kept silent on the public dispute, opposition party lawmaker Yim Sovann accused the government of undervaluing the importance of education and health.
“In the authoritarian countries, they consider education and health not priority sectors,” Mr. Sovann said, noting that in Thailand, more than 30 percent of the national revenue goes toward education alone. According to official figures, the government apportioned some $280 million to education this year, or 9 percent of all spending, but in 2007, funding for education was $133 million, about 11 percent of the budget.
“The priority for the ruling party is defense, security, and also the Council of Ministers,” Mr. Sovann said, referring to the fact that about $400 million was allocated to the defense and security sectors in 2013, roughly 13 percent of the total budget.
Mr. Sovann also addressed the discrepancy between the amount of money set aside for a given ministry and that which is actually spent.
“Because of corruption, we are losing the money every year, about $1 billion dollars,” he said.