I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference in Washington, DC, arranged by Oxfam. The conference was titled “Managing Cambodia’s Oil and Mineral Resources: Opportunities and Challenges for Development”.
While listening to the excellent presentations made by your ambassador and by one of the spokesmen of the host organisation, I felt tears coming to my eyes when I heard of exactly the same dreams and illusions that I heard in my own country, Venezuela, 35 years ago, when oil prices increased dramatically. Those dreams have now been horrendously shattered by the awful realities of what is known as the oil curse.
Both speakers duly addressed the challenges and explained what “had to be done” in order to avoid this oil curse, but the arguments, such as the need for transparency, good long-term investments and setting aside funds for the future, and the determination with which they were made were also identical to those we made three-and-a-half decades ago. All of it proved far from sufficient, did not serve us well and, in fact, only provided us an excuse for going down the wrong path.
The real problem is that not a single one of the precautions suggested has a real chance to stand up against the darkest forces of the oil curse.
No matter what you do, the fact is that oil revenues, when they are both generous and centralised in the hands of the state, provide for an independently wealthy government that does not need the citizens, and therefore becomes arrogant and cruelly turns citizens with high expectations into beggars for favours.
May I, therefore, respectfully beg of your Majesty to support the possibility that Cambodia’s net oil revenues be paid directly to the Cambodian citizens, in full and from the very first day.
That Article 58 of your Constitution states that mineral resources are the property of the state is no impediment for the results of the exploitation of those resources being paid out directly to the citizens. On the contrary, if the oil revenues were to remain in the hands of the state, that would effectively impede complying with Article 56, which states “the Kingdom of Cambodia shall adopt a market-economy system” and, more importantly, with Article 51, which states that “the Cambodian people are the masters of their country”.
I am not the one to remind a King of his duties, nor do I wish to presume to have royal wisdom, but having read in your Constitution that the King shall be the protector of rights and freedom for all citizens, and shall assume the august role of arbitrator to ensure the faithful execution of public powers, let me in all humility say that, if I were the King of Cambodia, there would be no better legacy I could dream of leaving to my people and country than freeing it forever from the dark side of an oil curse.
If there is an absolutely urgent need to initiate government projects, then allow the citizens to have the right to pay for these projects by giving back as income taxes a certain percentage of any oil revenues received, but please help your subjects to be and feel relevant to the future of their nation.
Your Majesty, I would deeply appreciate any attention you give this letter and, if it is considered an undue intrusion into the affairs of Cambodia, please know that it has been written with utmost sincerity, thinking of a country that has gone through much suffering and destruction, and
therefore truly deserves the help that oil could bring, in the words of its Constitution, to turn “Cambodia into an Island of Peace … moving toward perpetual progress, development, prosperity and glory”, instead of forcing it to face new nation-destroying hardships.
Sincerely, I remain, your Majesty’s humble friend,
Just another oil-cursed citizen
Send letters to: email@example.com or PO Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length.
The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.