Just north of Phnom Penh, in Kandal’s Ponhea Leu district, Prime Minister Hun Sen presided over the inauguration of a bio-ethanol plant Monday morning, the first of its kind in Cambodia.
The plant, run by a joint South Korean-Cambodian company, MH Bio-Energy Co Ltd, will convert several thousand tons of dry cassava into 36,000 kiloliters of ethanol fuel during its first year of operations, according to Chory Vy Sung, general director of MH Bio-Energy.
The company employs 192 people, will buy its cassava from local farmers, and will eventually process as many as 500,000 tons of cassava each year, he added.
“Until now, cassava in Cambodia have only served people’s stomachs,” Hun Sen said. “Now they will serve industry.”
For all the talk about bio-ethanol, another fuel source threatened to upstage the cassava derived variety.
At one point during his speech, Hun Sen, noting the high price of gasoline, asked his officials in the audience to call Sok Kong, the head of local petroleum company Sokimex, and ask him to lower his company’s gas prices at the pump.
Fifteen minutes later, the answer came through: Sokimex would cut its gas prices by 150 riel per liter. With the discount, Hun Sen noted, Sokimex premium gas would now cost 3,750 riel per liter, while regular would cost 3,650.
Another 15 minutes later, Hun Sen told the audience that Tela—primarily owned by the premier’s family—had also agreed to lower its prices by 150 riel.
Shortly after that, Sokimex raised the stakes, agreeing to lower its gas prices by 200 riel per liter across the board.
“I hope Tela will match Sokimex,” Hun Sen said. “A decrease in the oil price as a present for the premier is like a present for the people.”
He then addressed Cambodia’s two major foreign fuel companies, Total and Caltex.
“I appeal to the people to fill up at Tela and Sokimex stations if the other oil companies do not agree to lower their prices,” he said. “If Total and Caltex close their gas stations, let it happen, because no one will fill up there.”
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said that the morning’s gas price battle was largely theater.
“He says like that because he wants to fool the Cambodian people,” Yim Sovann said. “Behind it is a conflict of interest. Sokimex and Tela are owned by Hun Sen’s relatives.”
According to Yim Sovann, the global price of gasoline has gone down about 60 percent in the past two months, but the price of gas in Cambodia has only dropped by about 30 percent.
At current global prices, Yim Sovann said, gasoline should cost closer to 3,000 riel per liter in Cambodia.
Total and Caltex representatives could not be reached for comment.