Hun Sen tells global community not to treat Cambodia ‘like a child’
PRIME Minister Hun Sen lashed out at critics of the government’s handling of extractive-resource revenues on Wednesday, branding them “thieves” and saying that tensions between Cambodia and international watchdog Global Witness stem from a “sexual scandal” involving the group’s staff.
Speaking at the opening of a two-day mining conference in the capital Wednesday, Hun Sen said criticisms from international organisations and foreign countries were misplaced because the government has not yet pocketed any funds from extractive industries.
“I don’t understand when they order the fish to be fried or grilled while the fish is still in the water,” he told an audience of business executives, diplomats and civil society representatives. “They have accused us of corruption in spending while we have not yet made any money.”
Ministry of Finance budget records show that the government has received more than US$28 million in signature bonuses and social fund payments from foreign companies investing in extractive industries since the beginning of 2009.
Hun Sen also said that all payments made to secure mining or oil and gas exploration rights were processed within “the framework of the state budget”, and scolded international critics for treating the government “like a child”.
“Do not teach us so much – it is boring. No one is the teacher of Cambodia,” he said.
Western governments dwelling on the issue of mining, gas and oil revenue transparency are guilty of hypocrisy, Hun Sen said, accusing them of turning a blind eye to the lucrative gem-mining operations that helped support the Khmer Rouge insurgency during the 1980s and 1990s.
“Until this hour no one has dared to criticise the diamonds in Pailin, which were dug for making war,” he said.
Revenues from gems and timber helped support the Western-backed anti-government resistance coalition, which included the Khmer Rouge.
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), said Hun Sen’s claim that no money had been made from extractive industries was misleading.
“We have experience that Cambodia has got big fish, and that many fish are going into the ponds of corrupt officials,” he said, and alleged that US$2 billion has been lost to illegal logging since 1993.
He added that the government has yet to respond to questions from the SRP about millions of dollars in signature bonuses and social funds paid to the government by French oil firm Total and Australian mining company BHP Billiton.
The government has acknowledged receiving the payments, and critics have asserted that the funds have not been properly accounted for. “So far there is no reply regarding where the money has gone,” Yim Sovann said.
Last month, environmental watchdog Global Witness urged foreign donors to pressure the government to make such payments fully transparent.
“These figures represent only a fraction of the sum of the payments Global Witness is aware of. Overall, they raise serious questions,” campaigner George Boden said in an April 29 statement.
In his speech Wednesday, the premier launched a savage attack on the UK-based group, saying it was acting “like the boss of Cambodia”.
“They accuse the government in Phnom Penh of being thieves so I curse them as the chief thieves.... We have not yet
made money, but they already accuse us of being thieves.”
Hun Sen also said that Global Witness workers had been barred from the country following a sex scandal involving a “female employee” of the organisation.
“I would like to say in public that the matter between Global Witness and the government of Cambodia started with the sexual scandal of Global Witness staff,” he said. “The matter started from that ... and now Global Witness is trying to take vengeance with Cambodia.” No other details of the scandal were provided.
Global Witness, which has been barred from the country since 2005, on Wednesday lamented the prime minister’s attempt to smear its reputation.
“It’s unfortunate that Prime Minister Hun Sen used the opening speech at such an important national conference promoting Cambodia’s mining sector as a stage to personally attack us, rather than focus on how his government is going to implement the critical reforms needed for transparency and accountability in the industry,” the group said in an emailed statement.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said Hun Sen had clearly used the landmark conference as a way to send a message to his critics.
“I think he’s trying to respond to critics in the best way he knows how, which is not to respond to the issues, but to lash out at the messenger,” he said.
He added that the broadside could also be related to next week’s Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum (CDCF), when donors will measure the government’s progress on key reform indicators – including resource revenue transparency – and pledge development aid for the next 18 months.
“Maybe he’s trying to set the agenda, so they can’t raise some of these issues,” he said.