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Cambodia's coming oil economy

Analysis: What might oil drilling do to a poor country, its people, and its government?

Cambodian women on the Thai-Cambodian border Oct. 16, 2008. Cambodia's wealth of natural resources is attracting foreign investors. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

BANGKOK – Haunted by war, and wracked by poverty, Cambodia has had little opportunity to enjoy one its few blessings.

The nation of 14 million people, sandwiched between Thailand and Vietnam, is flush with natural resources. Veins of iron and gold run beneath its soil. Natural forests offer a wealth of timber. Most promising of all are Cambodia’s deposits of oil and gas, believed to snake offshore all the way through the kingdom’s lush interior.

As Cambodia’s leaders begin to parlay these natural blessings into wealth, selling off drilling rights to firms across the globe, American oil companies are taking notice.

So, too, are the watchdogs.

Foreign aid, in large part from U.S. tax dollars, accounts for half of Cambodia’s national budget. Much of this is aimed at the more than one-third of Cambodians living on roughly 50 cents per day.

While Cambodia’s ruling party could use the coming resource wealth to wean the country off foreign aid — and potentially lift millions out of poverty — leaders already appear to be hording this money for themselves, watchdogs say.

According to Global Witness — the U.K.-based non-profit that helped expose the West African “blood diamonds” trade — the coming oil wealth will likely just entrench Cambodia’s ruling cabal in corruption.

“In a couple of years, the elites will be so wealthy it will be hard to rewind the tape,” said Global Witness Director Gavin Hayman during a business trip in Bangkok. The non-profit recently published an investigative report on Cambodia’s growing oil wealth.

(This map, prepared by U.K. nonprofit Global Witness, reveals the offshore Cambodian territory U.S. energy firm Chevron plans to drill for petroleum. Source: Global Witness)

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/090316/cambodias-coming-oil-economy