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Defense To Hike Budget as Impasse Persists

The government is seeking to increase the 2009 budget for the Ministry of Defense to $500 million, nearly 70 percent more than the year before, a finance lawmaker confirmed Monday.

The increase in defense spending, which the government had sought to reduce in recent years, comes as a sometimes violent military standoff with Thailand continues.

The standoff has made national defense a top priority for the government, said Cheam Yiep, head of the National Assembly's finance committee, and a member of the Cambodian People's Party.

The armed forces need a proper military base, improved wages and health care, better uniforms and better training, he said.

The money for the extra spending would come from a budgetary reserve, Cheam Yiep said.

However, opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said Monday the reserve budget should not be depleted for improving the military. The reserve budget was designed for emergencies such as natural disasters, he said.

"I don't agree with the use of the reserve budget for national defense," he said.

The increased budget for the military will hurt Cambodia's growing economy, he said, citing the US's war with Iraq as an example.

Cambodia is a small country, with 40 percent of its people living in poverty, "so all of the annual budget should be taken care of and have proper evaluation before we send it to the National Assembly," Son Chhay said.

Officials at the Ministry of Economy and Finance declined to comment on the budget, which was proposed by the Ministry of Defense and must be folded into the full 2009 budget for parliamentary approval.

Kong Chandararoth, an economist and director of the Economic Development Institute, said he agreed with the defense increase.

Cambodia's national defense is not at international standards, "so we should increase the national budget" for defense, he said.

Cambodia's total annual budget was increasing every year, so an increase in the defense budget would be proper, he said.

The budget increase comes as the border standoff continues, despite a round of border talks by military commanders in Siem Reap last week and vows by the countries' two prime ministers to prevent further bloodshed.

Cambodia has complained that during a brief round of fighting earlier this month Thai soldiers damaged a corner of Preah Vihear temple, where adjacent land on a disputed border is at the heart of the military buildup.

Thailand issued a statement Monday denying it had fired at the temple and claiming Thai soldiers in the Oct. 15 fighting had been fired on by rockets and mortars, as well as rifles.