Charges threaten Cambodian mine-clearing agency

Audit alleges nepotism, fraud and mismanagement

November 28, 1999|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

SIEM REAP, Cambodia -- In a country where mismanagement and graft are common, the Cambodian Mine Action Center long stood as a notable exception, its reputation unsullied, its effectiveness unquestioned.

CMAC, as it is called, is entrusted with one of the most crucial jobs in Cambodia: clearing mines and unexploded ordnance from a country racked by three decades of warfare involving the United States, Vietnam and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge army.

Together with other agencies, CMAC has made great progress. But with upward of 6 million mines still to be cleared, Cambodia remains one of the world's most heavily mined countries. Hidden mines and unexploded bombs still claim scores of civilians and keep many potentially productive areas off-limits to farmers.

Two and a half months ago, an independent audit leaked to the local press threw the entire CMAC effort in doubt. It said the state-run, donor-supported center was guilty of fraud, nepotism and mismanagement -- charges that threatened the flow of international funds.

Specifically, it mentioned 120 acres in Kompot province, once a Khmer Rouge stronghold, that were cleared of mines in 1998 at a cost of $500,000 and now produced some of the world's finest black pepper, along with corn, bananas and sugar cane.

It turned out that the beneficiary of the effort was Col. Chhouk Rin, a former Khmer Rouge commander, whose underlings held up a train in 1994, killing a dozen civilians and kidnapping an Australian, a Briton and a Frenchman who were later killed.

The audit also found that some state-provided funds could not be accounted for and that inventories of equipment were incomplete. It questioned the appropriateness of providing CMAC Chairman Teng Mouly with a Lexus limousine and making his brother, Ieng Vuthea, CMAC's vice treasurer. Another audit showed that there had been no tampering with donor funds.

With donors nervous about the future of CMAC, the United States responded to the scandal by transferring $1 million allocated for the center to Halo Trust, a British agency active in mine-removal efforts in Cambodia.

"Despite the CMAC problem, demining in Cambodia is still ongoing," said William Longe, Halo's Cambodia program director. "It remains a top priority and the effort is not going to be derailed because of CMAC. Demining is extremely important to Cambodia's future."

CMAC costs $800,000 a month to run, and most donors appear to believe that the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen -- which relies heavily on foreign assistance to support its economy -- will straighten out the mess. Once it does, U.S. diplomats said, Washington hopes to resume its CMAC funding.

Donors have presented Hun Sen with a 50-point list as a prerequisite for continuing CMAC support. Most of the points have not been answered, but donors were encouraged that CMAC Director General Sam Sotha was fired and replaced by a general, Khem Sophoan, who has impressed foreign diplomats.

The donors also are willing to make allowances. Cambodia's most heavily mined areas were once under Khmer Rouge control, and if Hun Sen is to absorb the former guerrillas back into society, it is important to clear their land so it can again be productive, diplomats said.

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