Some people are playing down the potential oil and gas boom in Cambodia. The original hope of a possible $2 billion a year in additional revenue has been reduced to an initial $150 million and a possible $1 billion in several years. It is still significant for an $8 billion economy with a $1 billion annual government budget. Still, the government is trying to manage expectations.
As its violent history fades from memory, the government knows that its legitimacy will be increasingly tied to economic performance and better governance. So Cambodian leaders have an interest of not making a big deal about possible oil and gas windfalls. Some observers said that the bauxite deposits may be longer lasting as a source of growth. One Western diplomat speculated that hydroelectric may generate more revenues than oil and gas but the Mekong River area could be severely harmed from the dams.
Two types of risks emerge from the possible energy boom. The first type is the immediate effect from having a large amount of revenue injected into the economy. One effect could include the “Dutch Disease.” Although the Cambodian economy is largely dollarized, thus giving it a chance of avoiding the exchange rate effects of Dutch Disease, other problems could appear such as resources being diverted away from tradable to nontradable goods. The other related effect is the strong possibility that revenues will simply disappear into the pockets of corrupt leaders or “silly” projects, leaving the country with nothing.
The other type of risk includes the possible societal responses to poorly managed revenues. Several people I interviewed agreed that possible responses from most likely to least would be: Social unrest from failed expectations and poor management; political change or instability coming from the emergence of rival factions; and a military coup from a frustrated army.