OPPOSITION lawmaker Son Chhay wrote a letter to National Assembly President Heng Samrin on Wednesday asking for government officials to explain their dealings with mining giant BHP Billiton and energy firm Total.
BHP secured a mining concession in Mondulkiri province in 2006 before abandoning it last year, saying that a feasability study conducted at the site had shown that large-scale production there would not be cost-effective. The firm has been thrust into the media spotlight in recent weeks after disclosing last month that it was conducting an internal inquiry based on evidence of possible corruption violations by employees working on one of its overseas projects.
Though BHP has declined to disclose the project at the centre of its inquiry, speculation has been focused on Cambodia and the Mondulkiri project in part because of comments made by Minister of Water Resources Lim Kean Hor in 2007. Speaking before the National Assembly, Lim Kean Hor said BHP had paid US$2.5 million in “tea money”, or off-the-books fees, to secure its concession.
Son Chhay inquired into this issue. “As a member of the National Assembly, I have the right to write a letter to invite government officials to explain to the National Assembly about what we did not know,” he said Wednesday. “Within my letter, there was a question related to the deals that the government made with BHP Billiton and Total over the oil and gas business.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Wednesday that he had not seen the letter and therefore could not comment. Son Chhay said he had given government officials a deadline of next week to respond to his request.
Hang Chuon Naron, secretary general at the Ministry of Economy and Finance, revealed in January that Total had paid the government $26 million in January to secure conditional rights to drill for oil in the Gulf of Thailand. In a speech last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen put the payment at $28 million, a figure confirmed by Total.
BHP has said that the $2.5 million payment to which Lim Kean Hor referred was devoted to social development projects, and Total said last week that $8 million of its payment to the government would be earmarked for similar projects.
On Tuesday, the government inked an oil exploration deal with the Japanese Oil, Gas and Metals National Corporation for an area covering the Northern Tonle Sap basin. Officials and company representatives have thus far declined to make the terms of this deal public.