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Two Decades of Resource Development Questioned

[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 country.

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 people.”

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 government.

“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 follow-ups.

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 only.

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 destroyed.”

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 power.

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 government.