A three-year-old comment by a senior Cambodian government official has become a semantic tempest in a teapot this week, having possibly helped spur several corruption probes of the world’s largest mining firm.
Seven months after the Cambodian government inked a mineral exploration deal with Australian firm BHP Billiton, Minister of Water Resources Lim Kean Hor told the National Assembly in 2007 that the government had received “tea money, $2.5 million, from the bauxite investment with Australia.”
Tea money, or ‘loi teok te’ in Khmer language is a common term in many Asian countries, including Cambodia, used to refer to unofficial or under-the-table commissions.
But, Chan Yutha, a cabinet chief at the Water Resources Ministry, emphatically denied on Thursday that this was what the phrase meant. He said tea money was “not under-the-table money…bribery or corruption money” and blamed the confusion on the difficulty of translating between Khmer and English.
Historian Ros Chantrabot, an adviser to the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that the term is a recent import into the Khmer language by ethnic Chinese businessmen. Tea money is usually just a colorful way of describing a legal commission paid to a salesman or agent, he added.
“Tea money is just called a commission-it’s not illegal…it’s not under-the-table or corrupt money,” Mr Chantrabot said.
But SRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua said that although unofficial tea money payments are widespread in the private sector and among local officials, any payment of tea money to a high-ranking official constitutes “totally unacceptable” corruption.
“It is a practice at the local level which is a part of doing business, but if it is for officials then it is very serious,” she said.
“Tea money is money that you pay someone for a favor,” Ms Sochua added. “That alone is part of corruption, because it is money in order to buy favors so that you can have the upper hand over competition.”
When asked by a reporter on Friday to provide a definition of tea money, Phan Phalla, the deputy secretary general of the Supreme National Economic Council, sidestepped the question.
“I am sorry to say that I am not the person to know of these specifics,” he said while speaking Friday at a roundtable discussion in Phnom Penh on the management of natural resource wealth.
(Additional reporting by Simon Marks)