to listen to this report.
[Editor’s note: VOA Khmer recently
spoke with specialists in the field of natural resource management in
developing countries and learned that Cambodia is not alone in struggling to
use natural resources to benefit its citizens. The resource curse, where natural
riches fail to help the poor, is a worldwide scourge, the global experts told
VOA Khmer in numerous interviews. Below is Part Six of the original VOA Khmer
weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]
Cambodia’s natural resources were
not heavily developed during years of internal conflict, but significant
exploitation in the last two decades has been questionable in bringing revenue
to everyday Cambodians, and the nation’s gemstones, forests, oil, natural gas,
even fish, are more likely to benefit the elite.
Over the last three years,
London-based Global Witness has issued reports severely criticizing the
government for mismanaging natural resources, claiming Cambodia’s elites are
able to diversify their commercial interests to reap all forms of the country’s
assets. The government denies these reports, which are also banned in the
Eleanor Nichol, a Global Witness
campaigner, told VOA Khmer in an interview in Washington that the group’s goal
was not to publish anti-government material, but the truth inevitably affected
a few officials.
“We’ve become increasingly outspoken
at the very high-level, institutionalized corruption, which we’ve come across
in Cambodia’s natural resource sectors,” Nichol said. “And what we do is
publish information on that high-level, institutionalized corruption. It’s not
anti-government information. But what happens is, actually, that it tends to
point back to members of the Cambodian government, because they tend to be
using their positions of power to exploit their country’s natural resources.
So, inevitably over the period of time, it has brought us into a conflictual
relationship with the Cambodian government.”
Nichol said despite the angry
response by the government to the reports, Global Witness is still willing to
work with its leaders and officials.
“We would still like to work with
the government, and we’d like to see them comment in a serious manner and
respond in a serious and considered manner to some of the failures in
government which we’ve unveiled in Cambodia’s oil and mining industries,” she
said, “mainly because it is so crucial to the economic future of the Cambodian
In the “Cambodia’s Family Trees”,
published in 2007, and “Country for Sale,” published in 2009, Global Witness
severely criticized the government for mismanaging its natural resources.
The rich and powerful have
diversified their commercial interests, so that natural resources like beaches,
forests, islands, land and mining are controlled by a handful of
government-affiliated tycoons, high-ranking police, military commanders and
family members, Global Witness reported.
Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to
Prime Minister Hun Sen and head of the government’s human rights body, is named
in “Country for Sale,” reportedly benefiting from the work of a mining company
active in Cambodia, Float Asia Friendly Mation.
Global Witness reported Float Asia
as extracting marble from the protected areas of Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary
and the Central Cardamom Mountains’ protected forest.
Om Yentieng dismissed the report as
“stupid” and “nothing new,” saying Global Witness had accused Cambodia of
wrongdoing “for years.”
“If their report is true,” he said,
“then Cambodia is a hell, with no development, no double-digit development for
five years, like this.”
Global Witness has also indicted
high-ranking members of the military in its reports. In a visit to Washington
and the Pentagon in September, Defense Minister Tea Banh told VOA Khmer the
organization tended to “exaggerate the truth,” discrediting itself.
“One day the truth will be revealed,
and their credit will be undermined,” he said.
Nguon Nhel, a prominent National
Assembly lawmaker and stalwart of the Cambodian People’s Party, said the 123
representatives of the body are tasked with providing credible criticism of the
“We accept criticism and investigate
whether the criticism is true, but some criticism is unacceptable,” he said.
Son Chhay, and opposition lawmaker
for the Sam Rainsy Party, said the government should pay attention to detailed
cases written in the Global Witness reports and respond with productive
Instead, the government has drawn
criticism by silencing critics with lawsuits and jail terms, he said. They have
filed no lawsuits against Global Witness, he noted, indicating to him the
veracity of its reporting.
“The National Assembly seldom uses
information from such organizations as Global Witness,” he said. “In principle,
when we see such a report, we must go to the field accounted in the report,
such as extraction mines in Kampong Thom and Ratanakkiri provinces.
“Of course it hurts that the report
names those individuals,” he said, “but it’s an opportunity for the government
to use the report as a benchmark to improve these irregular situations.”
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the Sam
Rainsy Party and a lawmaker, told VOA Khmer by phone that so far concessions
were not issued transparently.
“Every concession of natural
resources, especially mines, must be publically handed out, so that people know
where the government has allowed private companies to exploit, where mines are
located,” he said. “They must have inventory and announce publically so that
all companies have equal opportunity to auction. If we hand out concessions to
a company secretly, without transparency, we lose a lot of national income.”
Government figures show that $3.6
million went into the national budget in 2008 for sales of forestry and mining
concessions, with income from these expected to increase to $4.6 million in
2009. A Finance Ministry official said this was due to sale of concessions
Cheam Yeap, a member of the
Cambodian People’s Party and chairman of the National Assembly’s finance
committee, said incomes from natural resources are put back into the national
budget for public spending.
“We have separate incomes generated
from the investment of natural resources and other income, and a set percentage
for investment and for other public spending,” he said.
Another official said the government
had managed the country’s forests by ceasing timber export and replanting
49,000 hectares of trees.
Ty Sokun, director of Ministry of
Agriculture’s forestry administration, told VOA Khmer that forests were still
abused by local poor, private individuals and the armed forces, but on a small
scale the government is cracking down on.
“We have strengthened law
enforcement, sharpened technical skills and carried out international forestry
management strategies for ASEAN,” he said. “We are leading and actively
participating in carbon forest credit, so that it contributes to reduction of
climate change and green house gas. In addition, it is noticed that while
abuses decrease, wildlife increases. We have collected weapons to be
Cambodia was to be a model for
post-conflict nation-building, following the introduction of peace and
democracy in 1992 by UNTAC. However, Global Witness said, it turned into
Southeast Asia’s newest kleptocracy, its reputation marred by corruption, human
rights abuses, impunity, repression and undemocratic government.
Instead of using millions of dollars
from natural resources to alleviate poverty, the reports said, the government
could follow the example of Burma, where a handful of elite use money from the
country’s natural resources to accumulate wealth and consolidate political
International experts working in
Cambodia told VOA Khmer that they acknowledge the challenges Cambodia has faced
over the past decades, but they are looking to the government to make more
efforts to improve the management of natural resources.
This could benefit Cambodia in the
long term, they say, especially with strong laws related to the environment,
forestry, fisheries and mining, and as a younger generation rises in the