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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Key South East Asian Countries Rank Low in Budget Transparency

By Ron Corben

A new survey indicates several South East Asian countries rank poorly in providing accessible and transparent information on their national budgets, raising fears of corruption in spending programs. Survey by the Washington-based International Budget Partnership says for many countries minor steps could be taken to improve transparency and accountability.

According to the Washington-based International Budget Partnership, most countries fall short in providing readily available information on budgets and spending programs.

Malou Mangahas, executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, says access to budget documents is a major challenge. The IBP says in many countries the public is simply shut out from the budget formation process.

"The report with you right now gives a very sad story. About 80 per cent of the governments in 85 countries of the world are not transparent about their budget and financial processes," said Mangahas. "The battle that we have really as journalists and development advocates is that that means misuse, abuse, and corruption of public funds continue in small and large measures in many countries."

The International Budget Partnership works with civil organizations in developing countries to analyze, monitor and influence the government budget process. The organization says the aim is to ensure budgets respond to the needs of the poor as well as provide more transparency and accountability.

At the top of the Open Budget Index were the United Kingdom, South Africa, France, New Zealand and United States in providing extensive information in the budget process.

Among the lowest ranking were Angola, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In South East Asia, Vietnam and Cambodia received low rankings, placing among the group of countries that provide little or no information on national budgets.

"The Royal Government of Cambodia provides scant information to the public in terms of central government budget and financial activity during the fiscal year," said Kim Song Chea, of the non-government organization, Forum on Cambodia.

Song Chea says Cambodia faces a number of challenges. He says the country lacks funds to boost the auditing process and has few means to press the government to enact freedom of information laws.

Song Chea says foreign donors, key contributors to Cambodia's development budget, need to press the government on issues of accountability.

According to the report, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand also fell short in transparency and information on national budgets. Only Indonesia showed signs of progress towards reform over recent years.

Khairiah Makhtaruddin, a researcher with the Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute in Kuala Lumpur, says the Malaysian government offers little chance for public participation in the budget process.

She says the government should improve the parliamentary review processes to raise levels of transparency.

Only Indonesia ranked better than 50 per cent in providing "significant information" to the public in its budget documents, with an improvement following reforms by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Finance at the national level.

The IBP called on governments to take urgent action to improve budget transparency and accountability, calling on international donors to add their weight along with civil society to publicize and demand explanations from governments to provide more information on spending programs.

The Washington-based organization recommended governments provide more timely information on the Internet and improve public accessibility to pre-budget documents. It also called for more debate and wider distribution of information through radio in countries where literacy rates are low.

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Cambodian PM: Culture products portraying monks' life must be approved first by authorities

PHNOM PENH, Any play, movie or musical featuring monks must from now on be screened and approved by the Ministry of Cults and Religions and leader of a Buddhist sect before it can be broadcast on television, national media on Monday quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen as saying.

The premier called on all TV stations, private and public, to seek permission from the ministry and Non Nget, the supreme patriarch of the dominant Mohanikaya sect, before presenting shows with actors depicting monks, said English-Khmer language newspaper the Cambodia Daily.

"I want to use this opportunity to appeal to the producers of any form of rock opera, movie and drama that involve actors acting as monks. They must have permission from Non Nget and the Ministry of Cults and Religions," he told the inauguration ceremony of a pagoda here on Sunday.

"Don't use monks to joke," he added.

Hun Sen's comments came following a controversy over the rock opera "Where Elephants Weep," which told a story involving two reckless young monks.

Some Buddhist monks were outraged by the show's Dec. 25 broadcast on CTN and demanded it be banned.
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Population of refugees grows in the Music City

NASHVILLE, Tennessee: For years the U.S. government has been settling refugees from all over the world in Nashville, a city small enough for newcomers to navigate, but large enough to provide for their needs.

They came to the U.S. for different reasons: fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, Iran's ayatollah, genocide in Africa, war in Iraq.

They are coming again from new places. About 60,000 Bhutanese are being admitted to the U.S. over religious tensions. The State Department hasn't said how many, but some of them will land in Nashville.

The same issue in Myanmar is also bringing people to the Music City.

Nearly 3,100 refugees have resettled in Nashville since 2002, according to the latest State Department figures. That's about 1 percent of the U.S. national total of refugees.

Carter Moody, development director of the Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee, is trying to find more grants to assist an influx of refugees arriving at a difficult time.

"Over time, Nashville and several other heartland cities — Denver, Iowa City, Minneapolis — have gained more mature social services that were on par with the East and West Coast," Moody said. "The affordable housing market was a factor attracting them, and manufacturing jobs have made Middle Tennessee a portal."

The center was formerly called the Somali Community Center, serving the estimated 3,500 Somalis and Sudanese. Kurdish people, numbering at least 10,000, make up Nashville's largest refugee population.

Mohamed Abdikarim was 11 years old when he came to the U.S. from Somalia. He and his parents had to overcome a major culture shock and he had to help his parents assimilate.

"First, it was the language, American society and everything that comes with it," he said. "You have to adapt. You realize it's harder for the parents."

Abdikarim learned English by playing Scrabble at the center with other Somalis. Today, he is studying medical science at Tennessee State University and volunteers at the center.

"I like to help my community," said Abdikarim, 21, "You learn a lot about yourself by helping others."

Resettlement agencies prepare apartments furnished with donations and anything else the family might need. But there is very little federal money. Lavinia Limon, president of the Washington-based U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, said it's typically as little as $900 per person.

"As you can imagine, that is a pitiful sum," Limon said. "In 1975, we were given $500 per person."

Refugees are eligible for food stamps, but many agencies want to find them jobs within the first months of their arrival.

"We certainly try to work with them to find jobs that are appropriate, but there also is a real focus on achieving self-sufficiency as soon as possible," said Kellye Branson, director of refugee services at Catholic Charities of Tennessee.

Even those refugees who arrive with advanced degrees end up taking entry-level jobs like housekeeping and dishwashing, Branson said. The recession has also made things more difficult for refugees.

Belmont University business professor John Gonas saw an influx of Burundi refugees and created with his students a series of DVDs explaining everyday actions like opening a bank account.

"They come to this country, they're given 90 days of funding and then they're expected to be able to pay their own rent and utilities," Gonas said. "Getting them to that place where they can budget whatever paycheck they have is a big deal."
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