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Cambodia's Elite Suspected of Pocketing Millions from Oil, Mineral Deals

An organization that investigates corrupt use of natural resources says a small number of officials and well-connected businessmen in Cambodia appear to have pocketed millions of dollars from oil and mineral deals. The organization, Global Witness, says the small elite group could siphon off millions more from the impoverished country's fast-growing oil and mining sectors.

In a report called "Country for Sale," Global Witness says a corrupt elite are profiting from Cambodia's emerging oil and mining sectors.

The anti-corruption organization says a core group including Prime Minister Hun Sen, military commanders, businessmen, and even the chairman of the human rights commission control Cambodia's mining, oil, and gas concessions.

A 1998 law allows the government to bypass lawmaker and public scrutiny to sign deals behind closed doors with little accountability.

"We know certainly of millions of dollars, which have been paid in the form of up-front bonuses to the government by private companies," said Eleanor Nichols, a Global Witness campaigner. "That money is not showing up in the national accounts. So, we are asking the question, 'Where has that money gone?"

Cambodia's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests for official comment on the report and calls to the ministry were not answered.

The Cambodian Embassy in London, where Global Witness is headquartered, in November posted comments on its website saying the organization's reports are part of a malicious and villainous campaign.

The statement said Global Witness was seeking to discredit the image of Cambodia and to damage its economic development.

Cambodia's oil and mineral revenue is only a small part of government coffers, but oil revenue alone is expected to grow by hundreds of millions of dollars in the coming years.

About half of the government's budget comes from international donors.

The director of Global Witness's campaigns Gavin Hayman, says those donors have been weak in addressing corruption.

"To give you a simple example of that, there has been talk about getting anti-corruption law in Cambodia for about 14 years now and it still has not happened," he said. "Every year the donors ask the Cambodian government to make progress on this issue. Every year, there is failure to make progress."

Hayman says donors recently backed off from pressuring Cambodia to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. It requires full publication of company payments and government revenues from oil, gas, and mining.

Global Witness was once selected to monitor the country's logging operations. But, after issuing a report in 2007 that accused top government officials of illegal logging operations, the organization had its license revoked in Cambodia and claims its staff received death threats.