The National Assembly convened Monday to begin debate on the $1.8 billion national budget for 2009, with criticism from the opposition prompting a heated response from Prime Minister Hun Sen, who made a rare appearance at the legislature.
The budget debate Monday, which resulted in the passage of one of the draft law’s five chapters, marks the first major legislation the Assembly has tackled since the new government was formed more than two months ago.
Assembly finance commission chairman Cheam Yeap told the assembled lawmakers that the state intends to put 19 percent of its resources, or $223 million, into defense and security for 2009—a 64 percent increase from 2008.
The social ministries are only seeing a 22 percent growth in their budgets compared with last year, but will still receive $399 million, Cheam Yeap said.
Despite the improved revenue collection in 2008 and record-breaking donor pledges for next year, Cheam Yeap said that his finance commission “has observed that revenue collection hasn’t been efficient…. The commission requests the Ministry of Finance to continue to implement revenue collection policies…so that we can eliminate corruption in our society.”
He also requested that Hun Sen consider reducing unnecessary government expenditures to allow for a greater focus on “irrigation systems and infrastructure such as bridges and roads along the borders, especially areas with ancient temples in order to increase tourism and generate revenue.”
Concerns about defense spending and transparency within the budget law prompted criticism from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said she agreed that military expenditures must be increased in a time of “invasion,” but she added that more attention must also be paid to social sectors.
She said health and education should be more of a priority, as they represent areas where poor Cambodians are pumping what little money they have into services that should be provided to them for free. She added that the draft budget did not raise civil servant salaries in line with inflation, which stood at 20 percent in October, according to government figures.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said he could see from the budget that tax revenue collection had increased, but he expressed concern about the lack of an explanation as to how the government was collecting this extra revenue.
“We don’t see details about income taxes,” he said.
Those remarks were followed by more caustic comments from Yim Sovann, who both recommended a massive spending program on infrastructure to boost employment while also sharply criticizing the government for not giving soldiers “proper uniforms, medicine and ammunition.”
The opposition remarks drew an angry response from the prime minister, who chastised the opposition politicians for seeking “political benefit” through their remarks.
“I am not a child,” Hun Sen said. “I thank them for those recommendations, but they raised problems to attack. The culture of attack to gain political benefit should be avoided inside the National Assembly.
“We have a democracy,” the premier continued, “but sometimes they claim that the government’s just like a child.”
Hun Sen went on to reiterate comments made earlier in Monday’s debate that the extra defense and security spending was for salaries only. He added that the draft budget also recognizes that corruption has occurred in the past and the government is taking actions to put an end to it.
Finance Ministry Secretary of State Ouk Rabun, who was on hand to defend the draft budget, also gave the Assembly a host of macroeconomic predictions Monday, saying that his ministry estimates 6.5 percent GDP growth with inflation of 10 percent and the riel remaining stable at 4,100 riel to the US dollar.
He added that the falling price of rice and oil could result in a recalculation and possible reduction of monies allocated to the various ministries.