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Cambodia Mulls Resource Transparency Initiative

[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 Nine of the original VOA Khmer weekly series, airing Sundays in Cambodia.]

Cambodia is considering application to the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, despite heavy criticism of its handling of natural resources so far, an official says.

Cambodian People’s Party Lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the initiative could help provide expertise in the field, “with adequate experiences in managing oil and gas.”

The Oslo-based Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative is a non-profit organization that helps country’s manage their natural resources.. In 2002, Britain’s then-premier Tony Blair announced the concept of the initiative at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The initiative focuses on transparency and accountability in managing oil and gas and requires companies to publish payments to host governments. So far, 30 countries, including five in Asia, have implemented the program.

“If the government officials and parliamentarians are interested in applying for EITI, we welcome that,” Sam Bartlett, Asia director for the group, told VOA Khmer. “We are ready to support those stakeholders in any way so that they can adapt the EITI to the challenges in Cambodia.”

Bartlett noted, however, that Global Witness, which has issued two reports critical of the government that are banned in the country, is a member of the transparency initiative’s board.

Cheam Yeap said, were Cambodia to decide on the initiative, it were defer decisions to the board.

“If Global Witness is still angry, or wants revenge on the Cambodian government, or Cambodia, it’s not a surprise, because we’ve had some sorts of conflict in the past,” he said. “If Global Witness is on the board and is still angry with Cambodia, let the EITI board of directors decide.”

Global Witness has been campaigning against illegal logging in Cambodia since 1995. Over the last three years, Global Witness has issued two reports, “Cambodia’s Family Trees” and “Country for Sale,” 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.)

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.

“It’s not anti-government information,” Nichol said. “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.”

Cambodia needs to consider not only EITI, but also overall governance of natural resources, she said.

“They also need to look at the way in which concessions have been allocated and who the concessions have been allocated to in order to ensure that the best deal has been obtained for Cambodia and its citizens,” she said.

Mam Sambath, chairman of the newly established Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency, supported transparency attempts, saying the initiative would provide information to the public, informing the decision-making process.

The transparency initiative also comes with financial support to build government and civic capacity, perform outreach work to companies, and coordinate work through different organizations and agencies, Bartlett said.

Both Indonesia and East Timor have committed to the initiative, while the Philippines and Vietnam are both considering how it could fit into their regulations.