INTERNATIONAL corruption watchdog Global Witness has welcomed a recent disclosure about exploration agreements signed with foreign oil companies, but says key questions remain concerning payments made to the government.
Last month, in response to questions from the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), Deputy Prime Minister Sok An made public a list of 23 firms involved in exploration in Cambodia, as well as information about how signature bonuses and other payments are handled by the government.
“We welcome Sok An’s response to the questions and the new information he has made available. This is a step forward for transparency in Cambodia and could contribute to improved democratic processes,” Global Witness campaigner George Boden said in a statement Tuesday.
But the London-based group also said there were significant omissions relating to the terms of contractual agreements and the details of payments received, as well as where the money had ended up.
“The government should publish the full details of all agreements and account balances so that the Cambodian people can be confident that the deals are above board,” Boden said.
Sok An’s disclosure came in response to a formal request made in May by SRP parliamentarian Son Chhay. In his response, dated June 9, Sok An also confirmed that the government received US$28 million from French oil giant Total to secure exploration rights in the Gulf of Thailand, $6 million of which was paid into a “social development fund”.
He denied any misuse of the funds, saying that all signature bonuses were paid into a National Bank of Cambodia account jointly managed by the Cambodian National Petroleum Authority (CNPA) and the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
“Like other national budgets, the money has a single exit and a single entry point with only one commander-in-chief and one chief of staff,” wrote Sok An, who is also the CNPA’s chairman.
“All payments must be made according to oil agreements ... [and] put into an account which is defined by the government.”
Following the publication of the letter last week, Son Chhay said key questions remained unanswered, especially relating to the social development fund.
He said Sok An gave no information about the fund’s formation and what regulations determine how its money is spent. “How do they control this and how do they manage it? How much money is in the fund?” he said.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, dismissed Global Witness’ calls for more information, saying they were motivated by a “personal” animus against Sok An. “All revenues go into the national budget – period,” he said.
He added that the government in June received strong support from international development partners, which increased projected annual aid payments by more than $200 million for 2010.
Global Witness “puts a lot of international pressure and makes a lot of statements, but look at the money we have received from development partners”, he said. “The $200 million we received this year more than last year is our answer to Global Witness.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG