Dialogue on Resource Governance with Dr. Ramos-Horta

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As Cambodia’s natural resource wealth is being uncovered and further explored, so too are the opportunities for corruption and mismanagement of the revenues. Currently under scrutiny is one of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton, for allegedly granting the Royal Government of Cambodia $1 million to secure exploration rights to a bauxite site in north eastern Cambodia. BHP states that $2.5 million was provided to support a social development fund controlled by BHP. However, an additional $1 million paid to the government by BHP seems not to have been recorded on government ledgers, and has been referred to as ‘tea money’ - a customary term for unofficial payment in Cambodia.

In light of such issues, a dialogue with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and President of Timor-Leste, José Ramos-Horta was organised by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (HBF) and Cambodians for Resource Revenue Transparency (CRRT) on Friday 23rd April 2010 in Phnom Penh. President Ramos-Horta was joined by guest speaker Dr Phan Phalla, Deputy Secretary General of the Supreme National Economic Council, where “Transforming Natural Resource Wealth into a Source for Sustainable Growth and Democratic Development” was discussed in the context of both countries. President Ramos-Horta spoke openly about the necessity for transparency in resource governance and the devastating effects corruption could have on a population recovering from a history of political turmoil, in the case of both Timor-Leste and Cambodia. Referring to the experiences of Timor-Leste, President Ramos-Horta described the government as responsible for “having to be constantly attentive, as more wealth can result in more corruption.”  President Ramos-Horta provided a general overview of the strategies being taken to ensure responsible management of resource wealth by his nation’s government. He stated education and health as the main sectors to receive funding from the resource revenues, as it would ensure a 100% return and create positive steps towards reducing the nation’s poverty.

In comparing both countries situations, Dr Phan Phalla openly agreed that Timor-Leste was further developed in managing its resource income than Cambodia. He commented that Cambodia could learn from Timor-Leste’s experiences in “turning a resource curse into a resource blessing”, for Cambodia’s government has been acknowledged as one of the largest in size in the world per capita; and thus encompassing potential to be one of the richest. Yet, as the wealth and power of the nation is contained within a small elite, managing the country’s distribution of capital is constrained to those with direct access to it. Some argue that to operate within such a hierarchical structure inevitably establishes a coercive logic of bribery. On the other hand, to comply with such business relations not only enforces these practices, but also accepts them as a functioning norm. Where then, is the line drawn? Fundamentally, change needs to happen from within, not only by the very agents that characterize these systems, but also by the people that are being directly affected by them. Thus, transparent resource governance not only provides a space for the public to participate, but it also represents a government that is being accountable to the very people they were elected by. As President Ramos –Horta pronounced “Whenever suddenly there is wealth, there is money...The temptation to rip off the nation is there”, to express such matters openly in the face of the public is a crucial move towards acknowledging such issues.

On the whole, as allegations over the BHP scandal continue to undergo further investigation, public dialogues on responsible resource management are ever more relevant and play a considerable part in involving civil society in the call for transparent and accountable resource governance.