The National Assembly debate on the proposed $792 million national budget for 2005 stalled Monday due to a heated question-and-answer session between opposition lawmakers and Minister of Finance Keat Chhon.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy took the floor to blame limited growth in government expenditures—up $40 million this year—squarely on corruption.
Income, Sam Rainsy argued, cannot increase so long as corrupt officials hamper investment, drain business revenue and divert an estimated $300 million to $500 million directly from government coffers, a figure based on a report submitted in August by the US Agency for International Development. “We want the Budget Law to be a vital tool to improve our country,” Sam Rainsy said. “If we can eliminate corruption…the people’s living standard will improve.”
The opposition leader argued that if the government could recoup the millions diverted annually into the pockets of officials, it could raise the wages of civil servants, whose low pay is a major incentive for taking bribes.
Prime Minister Hun Sen recently pledged to raise government wages by 15 percent. Sam Rainsy suggested the average $20 to $30 monthly wage could be raised to $100. “Low income has led teachers to commit corruption,” he said.
Keat Chhon admitted that income for the national budget is lost annually because of corruption. But the minister took issue with the USAID report estimate, saying it was exaggerated because the report’s authors did not work with the Ministry of Finance.
“They talked about the corruption, but there is no measure,” he said. “I want to invite [USAID] to come again, but we do not have money to buy their airplane ticket.”
Opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay joined in the criticism of the finance minister, accusing him of failing to get Assembly approval for government borrowing.
Keat Chhon responded that every six months a loan report is sent to the Assembly and suggested that Son Chhay had failed to receive it.