Saturday, August 4, 2007

World Bank's Zoellick arrives in Cambodia

August 4, 2007 - 10:13PM

World Bank president Robert Zoellick arrived in Cambodia on Saturday for talks expected to focus on nationwide corruption and bank-supported projects hit by graft scandals.

Zoellick, who took office in July, is to meet with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Sunday on his first visit to the kingdom, forming part of his first official tour of Asia.

He was scheduled to hold talks with Cambodian Economy and Finance Minister Keat Chhon late Saturday, officials said.

Zoellick's visit comes as Cambodia continues to pay back millions of US dollars siphoned off in a massive corruption scandal that forced the World Bank to suspend three key aid projects last year.

The programmes have since been reinstated, but the bank has demanded Cambodia repay 2.9 million US dollars after contractual irregularities involving agricultural and flood prevention funds were discovered.

The issue sparked a row with the Hun Sen government which initially refused to repay, saying the World Bank must provide more evidence of irregularities.

Cambodia, which is plagued by corruption at almost every level of government, also fell foul of the World Bank in 2003, when graft was uncovered in a project to demobilise 30,000 soldiers.

A major environmental group, which published a damning report in June accusing Cambodia's political elite of illegally plundering the country's forests, Friday urged Zoellick to address corruption.

"This visit is an opportunity for Robert Zoellick to set the tone for his presidency and lay the foundations for the Bank's approach to kleptocratic governments everywhere," Global Witness said in a statement.

Zoellick also visited the Khmer Rouge's notorious Tuol Sleng prison Saturday, a former high school that was converted into a torture centre during the 1975-79 communist terror regime.

Reeling from three decades of civil war, Cambodia's economy is expected to rise 9.0 percent this year, the International Monetary Fund said this week.

But the country is among the world's poorest nations as some 35 percent of Cambodia's 14 million people live on less than 50 US cents a day.

Zoellick, who travelled to Cambodia from Australia, is to visit Vietnam and Japan before returning to the United States on August 9.

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