[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 12 of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]
The chaotic management of the country’s natural resources is due in part to a legislature that is ill-equipped to hold government and law enforcement officials accountable, experts say.
The National Assembly has the mechanisms in place, but the body is not an effective watchdog of government policies and practices, said Lao Monghay, a researcher at the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission.
“The question is, how effectively does the National Assembly and every member of parliament serve the country and the people,” he said.
The legislative branch, such as the National Assembly, is an important part of a democratic country, overseeing the executive body, government activity and the application of laws.
Paul Collier, an Oxford University economist and author of “The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It,” said the poorest countries need “very strong checks and balances.” Collier said.
“They haven’t got them,” he said. “They got instant democracy in the 1990s, elections without check and balances.”
In “The Bottom Billion,” Collier ranks Cambodia as one of the world’s fifty-eight poorest countries that are natural resource-rich. In his view, Cambodia is one of the lowest-income countries and has only a façade of democracy.
Eleanor Nichol, a campaigner for the environmental watchdog Global Witness, said Cambodia’s National Assembly must strengthen the government’s checks and balances, and should be strong enough to oversee and investigate cases involved natural resources on behalf of the citizens it represents.
“It’s a key oversight body in terms of checks and balances of a functioning democratic state,” Nichol said. “So, one would hope to see it being proactively acting on behalf of citizens who elect them.”
Improper resource management undermines poverty alleviation and human rights, she said, so parliamentarians must investigate cases, ask questions, and challenge policies and actions where appropriate.
“That is what we hope to see in any functioning democratic state,” she said.
Nguon Nhel, vice president of the National Assembly, told VOA Khmer in a phone interview that parliamentarians are aware of their role, in lawmaking, oversight and handling complaints from the public.
The National Assembly makes laws, but in the absence of proper legislation, resource abuses take place, he said. Meanwhile, the National Assembly can question ministers over improper implementation of existing laws.
“We have done this so many times to strengthen the state of law,” he said.
Members also “go to the field” to meet people over their concerns in their lives “or pressure from any circle,” he said.
The National Assembly has passed four important laws to deal with natural resources: the Environmental Protection and Natural Resource Management Law, in 1996, the Law on Management and Exploitation of Mineral Resources, in 2001, the Law on Forestry, in 2002, and the Law on Fisheries, in 2006.
Still, many in the public lack confidence in the National Assembly.
Sarom, a truck driver in Phnom Penh, said he was disappointed in the inability of parliamentarians to address the concerns of the people.
“I don’t believe in parliamentarians at all because they are parties’ representatives,” Sarom said. “Parties can give orders to parliamentarians. Party represents the government. Therefore, parliamentarians have no will. Sending requests to parliamentarians is like sending requests to a cow.”
“They cannot criticize the government because criticizing the government is criticizing the party, which undermines the party’s popularity,” he said. “Then, they can be fired because our law says once parliamentarians are fired from a party, their parliamentary positions are no longer valid.”
The opposition is a minority and also ineffective, he said.
“It’s even worse sending our requests to parliamentarians from opposition parties, as they may be jailed or their immunity may be stripped,” he said. “We can’t do anything about it because the ruling party is a majority in the National Assembly.”
Son Chhay, a National Assembly representative for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, acknowledged such concerns.
“I am very disappointed,” he said. “I’ve been a parliamentarian for so long, and I would be satisfied if the democracy is more or less progressing. But we are in a situation where people have lost confidence in us. It is true that people cannot depend on parliamentarians from the ruling party, because most of the abusers are officials from the ruling party or associated with the party. In addition, it’s unfortunate that our country’s leader publicly warns people not to file complaints to opposition parties. If they do, the problems won’t be solved.”
It is difficult for the National Assembly to oversee the government’s management of natural resources, because ruling party has full control over both legislative and executive bodies, he said.
“The lack of division of power within national institutions to oversee each other allows officials in the government to abuse whatever they want,” Son Chhay said. “Therefore, I think Cambodia is facing serious hardship. We haven’t seen any mechanism in place to effectively prevent these resources from being destroyed.”