YI: We hear the Government is planning a decentralization program. In your opinion, is this good or bad for Cambodia?
Chhith Sam Ath: I think it will be good for Cambodia because it will bring people close to the decision-makers, and they can convey their concerns.
YI: This is an opportunity again for the people in the rural areas, outside the urban centers, outside of Phnom Penh, to have a role. But are they prepared?
Chhith Sam Ath: I think after 1992, they have generally become more aware but many challenges remain. It's the community not the people itself. They must be more and more involved and learn in the process, particularly since Cambodia is so rich in natural resources.
YI: Talking about resources I believe that Cambodia since 2005, has been the focus of many investors because oil and gas were discovered off-shore. And they think that by 2011, revenues from the oil reserves that are now being exploited will contribute immensely to the economy. How will this change the country?
Chhith Sam Ath: The recent exploration of oil and gas in Cambodia's territorial sea and on shore, and indications of abundant mineral resources in the eastern and northern parts of the country make it highly likely that Cambodia will turn into a small oil-producing and mining country, raising a substantial amount of its revenues from these extractive industries. If this potentially huge resources is spent appropriately to respond to the most needy sectors and public investments, it will result in speedy economic development and to achieving Cambodia's development goals. However, international experience highlights the risk of the 'resource course' which is likely to take place in a country whose revenues from natural resources is very big compared to its economy. This may have several features, such as corruption and rent-seeking, which diverts the income from government revenues, worsen income inequality and exacerbate poverty and undermine political stability owing to mismanagement. One way to avoid this resource curse is to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which aims to increase transparency of transactions between governments and extractive industries. The Government is studying the EITI for its possible endorsement sometime this year.
Because income from extractive industries will not last forever, it is important to invest (or save) resources wisely, so that future generations will also benefit. The Government, the National Assembly and representatives of civil society, with the held of development partners, hold an open discussion on how to use this revenue efficiently to develop the country effectively, to avoid the resource curse and to maximize the resource blessing.
YI: Does the NGO Forum have a separate organization, a watchdog to monitor the revenues from the extractive industry?
Chhith Sam Ath: Civil society monitoring of government and government expenditure is part of a democratic process Cambodian NGOs are aware of this positive role that we can play. At the moment there are five organizations that have established a coalition with the goal to ensure that oil, gas and mining revenues benefit the Cambodian society as a whole.
YI: Now, with this oil and gas and other extractive industries, Cambodia will be richer. Do you think this will reduce the country's dependency on foreign donors where development is concerned?
Chhith Sam Ath: I think it will. I think that a number of donors may even divert resources away from Cambodia, to countries that are poorer, once the country starts getting large amounts of money from oil and gas and mining. But there will still be a need for technical expertise from outsiders in the years to come. We should try to maximize the benefit of the donors technical expertise so we can develop the country efficiently and reduce poverty in the fastest possible manner.
YI: Let's get away from the economy and go to Cambodia as a new member of ASEAN. What are the benefits of being a member of this regional organization?
Chhith Sam Ath: It is beneficial to be a member of ASEAN. It can help to contribute to the peace and economic development. There is a need to cooperate together on certain programs if we are to be effective about addressing certain issues.
YI: Do you mean a cooperative programs between Cambodian NGOs and those in other ASEAN countries?
Chhith Sam Ath: It's good to have an exchange of experiences with other NGOs in the region. We have worked together with groups from Thailand and the Philippines and we need to do more with other countries.
YI: We have been hearing about NGOs, let me ask you now about yourself. You went to the Asian Institute of Techonology. How did you first get interested in civil society and working with NGOs?
Chhith Sam Ath: I was first involved with civil society by being a founding member of the country's first human rights group, called the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), following Cambodia's signing of the Paris Peace Agreement on October 1991. Because of the uncertain security situation, we set up our first office was in a pagoda, because it was the safest place. We also had an office in Phnom Penh and began to have offices in the provinces. But one of them was surrounded by tanks when there was tension between the Government and the NGOs. I learnt a lot about democracy at this time, about the role the media played. Then I went to Thailand to study and I came back to work for the NGO Forum in Cambodia. I realized that d not enough attention was being given to the impact of rapid development. It was a challenging situation. I felt that I could do more than just working for a development organization. That's why I decided to work for a community organization.
YI: This is very interesting. You are an advocate of non-government activities, yet your father was a government official. Did you often have differences?
Chhith Sam Ath: Not serious discussions, reflecting the current context. But my father belongs to the CPP, the ruling party, and I belong to an opposition party.
YI: So, it's diversity...
Chhith Sam Ath: Diversity, not everything is the same.
YI: That seems to be a good picture of what Cambodia is and will be in the future. How do you feel about your children? Will they be able to be free to choose what they want to be?
Chhith Sam Ath: I think it will depend on development and current trends and paradigm.
YI: Let me put it in another way, when your children grow up, will there be a democracy that you are fighting for today?
Chhith Sam Ath: I think definitely that will happen.
YI: Mr. Chhith, I think that time is up and I would like to thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us.
Chhith Sam Ath: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to be in this program.