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Cambodia’s Capital Calm Amid Election Campaign Restrictions

The third day of campaigning ahead of commune elections remained relatively quiet Monday in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh amid tight restrictions by the country’s electoral body, while civil society groups urged parties to refrain from using rhetoric that could lead to political violence.

Yang Kim Eng—a contributor to the Situation Room group of civil society organizations (CSOs) that includes the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Licadho, and Adhoc—told RFA’s Khmer Service that National Election Committee (NEC) regulations had kept political party gatherings calm in the capital, compared with previous campaign periods.

“The rallies are small due to NEC restrictions … [on] both the form of campaigns and materials used during those campaigns,” he said.

“For instance, one car, a motorbike and a couple of tuktuk tricycles with more than 10 people using loudspeakers to spread a political message is considered a rally.”

The NEC placed no restrictions on the size or number of rallies during the lead up to elections in previous years, but on May 19 issued rules limiting public rallies to two days during 2017’s campaign period, which began a day later, prompting objections form opposition parties and CSOs.

Yang Kim Eng said that the 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats across the country on June 4 “dared not” stage multiple large cross-commune rallies for fear of not being allowed to hold them on the final day of the 14-day campaign period.

On May 20, thousands of supporters from both the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had flooded the streets of the capital to mark the beginning of the campaign period.

But each of the six political parties vying for seats within Phnom Penh staged only a “small march” in each of the city’s communes on day three of campaigns, he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP—which staged a major rally at the capital’s Koh Pich Convention Center on May 22—did not hold a gathering on Monday, and instead arranged kiosks at several major boulevards and at its various commune offices around the city.

The CNRP held a small rally with marches and tuktuks in each commune within Phnom Penh, distributing stickers and discussing its platform and plans for local development to residents along the way.

The four remaining parties—FUNCINPEC, the Khmer National United Party, the League for Democracy, and the Beehive Social Democratic Party—did little campaigning in the capital Monday.

Meas Chhorporn, the chairperson of the Phnom Penh Election Campaign, told RFA that there had been no disputes related to campaigning in the capital since May 20, and commended political parties for maintaining “a sound environment” while holding their events.

“There have been no major challenges for us to resolve,” he said.

Campaign rhetoric

On Monday, COMFREL investigation coordinator Korn Savang called on political parties to show restraint and refrain from using insults and threats against one another that could lead to violence during the campaign period, urging the NEC to take action against offenders.

“For civil society, we believe that any messages intended to intimidate or threaten are illegal,” he told RFA.

“The NEC should take measures, such as warning or advising parties concerned, in accordance with its stipulated procedures.”

On May 14, defense minister Tea Banh had warned that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting an election win by the CPP and quickly suppress any demonstrations by CNRP members like those that followed the opposition’s loss in national elections in 2013.

Hun Sen has also made several references in recent months to civil war if the public does not support his CPP in local elections on June 4.

While observers view such statements as intimidation tactics by the ruling party, the NEC has said it has no authority to act because the threats were made ahead of the campaign period.

On the first day of the campaign, however, co-chairperson for the CPP’s Prey Kabas district working group in Takeo province was quoted by local media accusing the CNRP of inciting its supporters and activists to cause “social chaos,” and said the opposition had never done so much as “build a toilet” for the people of Cambodia.

“The commune council election on June 4 is one of peace or war, development or tragedy, prosperity or death,” he said at the time.

And on May 21, the CPP expressed anger over a CNRP supporter who posted a video clip on her “Pey Pey Ly” Facebook account suggesting the ruling party had hired Vietnamese citizens to bolster the ranks of its rallies because Cambodians will no longer vote for it in exchange for petty gifts.

NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea on Monday said that the committee had not investigated either of the two cases because “no complaint had been lodged” for either incident, adding that it is currently looking into other “more immediate” cases, and urging all political parties to comply with campaign procedures.

“The NEC has a department for monitoring all content and forms of the election campaign,” he said.

“The NEC cannot work at the same time as both judge and plaintiff for a complaint, since it may cause confusion,” he added.

On May 20, U.S. State Department spokeswoman for East Asia Alicia Edwards said Washington had urged Cambodia’s government to “guarantee a political space free from threats or intimidation” and respect freedom of expression for all its citizens, according to a report by the Associated Press.

CNRP lawmaker and spokesperson Yim Sovann said Monday that the statement was issued to “encourage Cambodian citizens to be brave and confident, and realize that only an election can solve the nation’s most important issues.”

Local ban

Concerns over campaign practices came as Huong Chamnab, a CNRP candidate for Orussey commune’s Kapo village, in Kratie province’s Kratie city, told RFA that local authorities had prevented residents who previously accepted CPP gifts from participating in the campaign events of other parties.

“They did not allow those people who had accepted [CPP] gifts to take part in the opposition party’s [campaign activities],” he said, referring to a May 21 event held in Orussey, during which CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay explained the party’s platform to around 300 attendees.

“This is a threat, because citizens should be allowed to listen to the political messages of all political parties for their own consideration. We consider such a ban as a threat.”

Huong Chamnab said the CNRP’s local working group had already reported the matter to the Commune Election Committee (CEC), but had yet to lodge a formal complaint.

Attempts to contact Kapo village chief Ros Chheng for clarification went unanswered Monday.

Tonn Dara, vice-chairperson of the Kratie Provincial Election Committee, confirmed that the CEC had yet to receive a complaint over the allegations, but said blocking residents from taking part in campaign activities is considered a breach of the law.

“If such an incident truly occurred, it is against the law and legal procedures,” he said.

“It could lead to a charge of obstruction and punishment.”

COMFREL’s Korn Savang told RFA that village authorities should not use their power to obstruct citizens from taking part in any campaign events, even if such obstruction is verbal, as it constitutes a violation of their rights.

“Legally, citizen participation must not be obstructed or forced by any individual,” he said.

“Such activities are illegal and should be punished accordingly.”

Campaign promises

Also on Monday, CNRP president Kem Sokha promised to abolish the Ministry of Rural Development and allocate U.S. $500,000 from the national budget to each commune across the country if his party wins the general election slated for 2018.

On the second day of a two-day campaign tour through communes in Koh Kong and Preah Sihanouk provinces, the opposition chief told supporters that the Ministry of Rural Development had failed to deliver to the people of Cambodia, despite “spending lavishly” from the country’s budget.

“This doesn’t mean that when the CNRP wins the election, the party will carry out revenge against the losers,” he said.

“A CNRP victory means a victory for all Khmers—a win-win for both sides. All Khmers will live harmoniously together.”

Kem Sokha also promised “change” for the communes he visited during his campaign trip, saying that by electing CNRP candidates residents would replace “unclean commune chiefs” with “uncorrupted and nonpartisan ones,” who would work to address the difficulties they endure.

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA that Kem Sokha’s plan to abolish the Ministry of Rural Development would destroy Cambodians’ livelihoods, and reverse development and progress for farmers in rural areas.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible opposition win in next year’s national elections.

Reported by Vanndeth Van, Sothearin Yeang, Chanthy Men, and Yuthea Touch for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodian Opposition Parties, Civil Society Groups Oppose Campaign Rally Rules

UPDATED at 10:20 A.M. on 2017-05-22

Opposition parties and civil society groups in Cambodia objected on Friday to what they consider last-minute rules issued by the country’s election committee to reduce political campaigning to two days, keep campaigners off main roadways, and maintain public order during election rallies in the run-up to next month’s commune elections.

The National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees national elections in Cambodia, has limited public rallies to two days during a 14-day election campaign period, and said that the remaining time should be used for normal political campaign activities. It has also restricted the number of campaigners involved in public activities, such as distributing leaflets, and the number of vehicles they can use during this time.

Opposition parties and civil society groups interpreted the moves as further restrictions on their right to hold public rallies during the official campaign period from May 20 to June 2 before commune elections on June 4.

Meng Sopheary, head of the Election and Legislative Affairs Department of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said the instructions issued by the NEC, which oversees the country’s national elections, restrict political parties’ ability to disseminate their messages.

She raised questions about why the NEC, a supposedly independent body, was putting in place various restrictions and said that the move likely came as a result of the CNRP’s growing popularity.

“For the CNRP, we want the campaign rally to be held as widely as possible to send our political messages to the people,” she said. “We want the people to join us, and our supporters also want to take part in the rally to show that the CNRP’s campaign can attract many [people]. Such limitations don’t allow us to stage activities on a grand scale.”

Observers say the CNRP—one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—could give the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible CNRP win in national elections scheduled for 2018.

Thorn Chantha, deputy secretary-general of the royalist Funcinpec party, said the NEC’s instructions for holding campaign rallies do not provide complete explanations, and he is concerned that campaigners may interpret the rules differently.

Nevertheless, CPP headquarters official Chhao Vanndeth agrees with the NEC’s instructions, arguing that the body’s regulations are based on reason and the law.

“The CPP can accept all the NEC instructions in addition to [election campaign] laws and directives,” he said. “We don’t have any problems with them. The CPP will implement and abide by the NEC’s instructions.”

Ensuring public order

Tep Nitha, the NEC’s secretary general, said the body has put in place what others consider to be restrictions and procedures for the commune elections to ensure public security and order to create a sound environment for political parties to disseminate their messages to voters.

“If the political campaigns were held in a disorderly manner, and any party could do whatever it wanted, then all of society would encounter a deadlock,” he said.

He cited the example of campaigning at public markets, saying that if the NEC allowed parties to use loudspeakers everywhere, it would affect merchants’ ability to sell their goods because people would stay away.

Meanwhile, authorities in the capital Phnom Penh, where the largest rallies are held, have instructed representatives of six political parties with candidates up for election not to gather in major public parks and have banned rallies from being held along the city’s main boulevards.

The municipal authorities also informed the parties to notify them in advance if they distribute campaign material in public markets.

Sin Tithseyha, an investigation official with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said this is a further restriction imposed on political parties during the campaign period.

He also said the NEC should not prohibit political parties from holding campaign rallies at key gathering places because the agency had already reduced the campaign period to 14 days.

The NEC said it will impose fines ranging from 5 million riels (U.S. $1,200) to 30 million riels (U.S. $ 7,400) on political parties that breach the procedures in accordance with the commune/sangkat (administrative division) election laws and the law on the election of members of parliament.

CNRP to begin rally

Amid criticism of the NEC’s move by opposition parties, the CNRP said it will kick off its campaign rally Saturday along roads designated by municipal authorities in Phnom Penh.

Morn Phalla, the CNRP’s executive committee chairman in the capital, said the party agreed to use diverted roadways per the NEC’s instructions to avoid traffic congestion.

The regulation also does not affect the roads along which the CNRP had chosen to hold its campaign rally, he added.

“That is neither a strict measure, nor does it pose any major problem because we can change directions according to the map,” he said, referring to a map issued by the NEC that designates roads in Phnom Penh where campaign rallies cannot be held.

The CNRP will begin the rally at its headquarters near Wat Chak Angre Krom and move through major boulevards in the capital, including National Road No. 2, the Preah Monivong Bridge, Preah Monivong Blvd., and Preah Sihanouk Blvd., until it arrives at Chumpou Voan market on the outskirts of town.

CNRP president Kem Sokha will participate in the rally on Saturday.

The CPP, however, will not hold any major rallies across communes on the first day of the campaign period, because the law only allows parties to hold a rally in each individual commune/sangkat, said CPP lawmaker and spokesman Sok Ey San. Instead, the party will hold a meeting at each of its commune offices.

The CPP will hold another meeting at each commune/sangkat party office on the second day, he said.

During the remaining 12 days of the campaign period, the party may hold rallies inside communes/sangkats to distribute leaflets about its political platform, he said.

“All communes/sangkats will hold their own meetings, [and] each commune will have its own rally,” Sok Ey San said.

The CPP will also acknowledge May 20 as the date of remembrance of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979.

Reported by Sonorng Khe and Vanndeth Van for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously listed the number of days in the official campaign period as 12 instead of 14.

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Interview: 'We Didn’t Want the Ministry to Collude with the Companies to Destroy the Evidence'

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, director of the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, was expelled from Cambodia in February 2015 and placed on a black list that prevents his return to the country. The Khmer-speaking Spanish environmentalist, who drew the government’s ire by leading a campaign against a controversial dam project, spoke to Sel San of RFA’s Khmer Service about evidence that sand dredging is still going on despite a government ban.

RFA:  It’s been a while since you have been away from Cambodia. Do you miss Cambodia?

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson: Yes, I do. I have been finding ways to return to Cambodia. However, the current circumstance is not easy me to return.

RFA:  You have stated that sand is still being exported although the government has banned it. What evidence do you have to prove your claim?

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson: We have ample evidence. After receiving information from the local villagers of sand dredging activities, four Mother Nature activists took the boat with some villagers to the sites. They have taken some pictures of the sand dredging operation.

RFA:  The government has accused Mother Nature of failing to cooperate with the Ministry of Mines and Energy to address this issue. The ministry has accused your group of creating problems rather offering to help solve them. Is that correct?

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson: No, it isn’t. We have always availed ourselves for such cooperation since mid-2015 but all to no avail. Unfortunately we have been retaliated against for our work. The activists of Mother Nature have been prosecuted. An arrest warrant was also issued for me by the Koh Kong court. I therefore don’t think there is a need for us to cooperate with the ministry anymore. What we need to do now is collect information on our own and publish it on social media to put pressure on the government. We are not creating problems. We are finding solutions to the problems. We note that the government and ministries concerned are incapable of curbing sand export.

RFA:  The Ministry of Mines and Energy has indicated that the ban on sand exports is not a blanket order. In other words, sand which is the raw material for making glass is allowed for expert. What kind of sand is being exported now?

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson: Well, it’s the ministry’s new excuse. The government ministries have manipulated the public since November 2016. It’s a complete lie that the ban is not a blanket order. I recall the ministry has stated that the export of all kinds of sand is banned. The sand that is being dredged now is for landfill and construction purposes. It is not for making glass. The reason we didn’t inform the ministry before we made a public statement about the sand dredging activities was that we didn’t want the ministry to collude with the companies to destroy the evidence.

Translated by Nareth Muong.

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Cambodia Rejects Report Detailing Timber Smuggling to Vietnam

Cambodia’s government on Thursday rejected a report by a U.K.-based watchdog that warned of largescale deforestation and illegal sales of timber across the border to buyers in Vietnam, saying its findings do not present an accurate portrayal of the situation.

In a May 8 report, entitled “Repeat Offender: Vietnam’s persistent trade in illegal timber,” the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said around 300,000 cubic meters of timber—including endangered rosewood—had been smuggled out of protected areas to Vietnam with the help of local authorities through some U.S. $13 million in bribes between November last year and March 2017.

The EIA separately published 2016-2017 sales invoices from Cambodian companies and Vietnamese import data on Tuesday showing the total import value of Cambodian timber to Vietnam amounted to around U.S. $300 million since January 2016, despite Cambodia’s implementation of a ban on the trade that month.

At the time the May 8 report was published, Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense rejected its findings outright, while the Ministry of Environment—which is responsible for forest conservation—acknowledged that illegal deforestation is occurring in the country and pledged to investigate the EIA’s claims.

On Thursday, just ten days after the release of the report, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Sao Sopheap dismissed its findings that Cambodian officials are often complicit in deforestation and smuggling, saying the EIA failed to recognize the country’s efforts to combat the problems.

“It does not reflect [the reality] of the fact that we have been working to crack down on and prevent such offenses,” he said at a press briefing in the capital Phnom Penh.

“We also don’t allow any largescale destruction, as mentioned [in the report]. That is why I said it does not reflect what we have made efforts on and practiced in reality.”

Sao Sopheap did not specifically address the EIA’s findings with regard to illicit cross-border trade volume other than to suggest that the scale was not as serious as reported, although he acknowledged that his statement was not based on a ministry investigation of the allegations.

“I did not base this conclusion on any kind of verification,” he said.

The ministry will need additional time to thoroughly study the EIA’s report, he added, without providing a timeframe for its investigation.

Sao Sopheap referred questions about what kind of data the Ministry of Environment is using to verify the EIA’s findings to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.

Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries deputy director Keo Oum Malis said that his ministry had only issued licenses to Cambodian companies exporting furniture to China through Vietnam since the ban on timber exports to Vietnam went into effect last year, but never for trading unprocessed logs.

“We don’t issue licenses … because during the 2016 campaign, the government prohibited any export of whole timber [to Vietnam],” he said.

“The campaign suppressed [the smuggling of] more than 60,000 cubic meters of timber.”

The government’s response to the EIA report came days after Cambodia’s National Police issued a report accusing a company owned by business magnate Kith Meng of using its license to clear land for a reservoir for the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam as a cover to launder illegally logged timber before selling it across the border in Vietnam.

On Thursday, EIA senior campaign official Jago Wadley told RFA’s Khmer Service that by issuing its report and other documentation his organization intended to warn the Cambodian government of the scale of the logging problem and assist in investigating and addressing it.

“These documents will help Cambodian authorities enforce the law against forest destruction and timber smuggling in Cambodia, which has resulted in the country losing several million US dollars,” he said, referring to the data the EIA released on Tuesday.

Wadley urged Cambodia’s authorities to act against all individuals, “regardless of rank,” who are involved in illegal trade by fining or jailing them, in accordance with the country’s existing laws.

EU response

Ouch Leng, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, also weighed in on the EIA report Thursday, telling RFA that those who purchase timber from Vietnam—including European Union (EU) member nations—should source their wood elsewhere in order to end deforestation in Cambodia.

When asked about its view of the EIA findings, the Brussels-based European Commission (EC)—which proposes and implements EU policy—said in a statement that it took the report “very seriously” and had called on both Cambodia and Vietnam to look into the allegations of illegal timber smuggling.

“We expect the authorities of Cambodia and Vietnam to urgently investigate the reported illegal activities and take firm action against individuals and companies found to be involved in illegal logging and related trade, as well as to take steps to prevent any such activity in future,” the statement said.

“Reports such as the one recently published by EIA also provide useful information with respect to the implementation of the EU Timber Regulation, which prohibits placement of illegally-harvested timber on the EU market and obliges EU operators to exercise due diligence to ensure the legality of their supply chain.”

The EC said the EIA report also demonstrated the importance of a May 11 agreement between the EU and Vietnam on Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade, which it said aims to strengthen cooperation in combatting illegal logging, improving forest governance and promoting trade in legally produced timber.

It noted that the EU had stopped funding a community protected area in northeast Cambodia’s Virachey National Park—one of the protected areas mentioned in the EIA report—in 2015 amid allegations of illegal logging activities there.

Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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New Voter Registration Procedure Could Disenfranchise 300,000 Cambodians: Analysts

More than 300,000 Cambodians may not be able to vote in next month’s commune elections because they do not possess identification cards required for casting a ballot under a new legal procedure put in place by the country’s election commission, election observers and analysts said on Thursday.

A new and complicated procedure of the National Election Commission (NEC), the agency that supervises the country’s national elections, are causing difficulties for voters who must scramble to obtain forms confirming their identities and jeopardizing their right to vote granted by the country’s constitution, they said.

The legal procedure, adopted by the NEC on March 10 and disseminated in April, require citizens whose names appear on voter lists, but who do not have an official identification card, to apply for a certificate confirming their identity to vote in commune elections on June 4.

To get a certificate, they must prove their identities, submit three photos of themselves, and have two witnesses appear before officials from commune/sangkat (administrative subdivision) election commissions between May 4 and June 2.

Observers said some Cambodians who have already registered their names on voter lists believe that they have enough documents in order to cast ballots. Others have applied for official IDs but have not yet received them from the Ministry of Interior. They also said Cambodian migrant workers in neighboring countries are the most at risk of losing their right to vote.

The new legal procedure could disenfranchise more than 300,000 people, or roughly 2 percent of Cambodia’s population of 16 million, who have already registered their names, analysts said.

Independent analyst Lao Mong Hay noted that many other countries that practice democracy maintain easy conditions for their citizens to vote for their leaders.

Cambodia, however, is not among them because the country has put in place some legal procedures, such as the new NEC requirement, that prevent its citizens from exercising their right to vote, he said.

“The state is obliged to ensure that citizens can vote easily with less expense [for voters],” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

NEC deputy secretary-general Som Sorida has called on the media to help spread news of the new procedure to those without ID cards so they can go to administrative offices and complete the paperwork for their certificates.

“If they don’t possess documents confirming their identities for voting, even though they have their names registered on the voter list, they still cannot cast their votes,” he said. “All people must clearly understand this point.

“There are two kinds of documents that people can use to be able to cast their votes—either a Khmer national identification card or a certificate confirming identity for voting,” he said.

Too much, too late

Lao Mong Hay, however, questioned why the NEC did not announce the new procedure back when citizens registered their names to vote.

He pointed to the new voting registration system that requires people to have their thumbprints scanned and possess documents that confirm their identity for voter registration in accordance with the election law.

Because such people already have been issued proper receipts, Lao Mong Hay said the NEC’s further legal procedure requiring prospective voters to apply for a certificate confirming their identity should not be necessary.

“Such legal procedures should have been done as part of a package by the time people went to register their names to vote,” he said. “And the NEC should have let the people know in advance and tell the authorities responsible for issuing the identification cards to be well prepared.”

Cambodians in some provinces such as Poipet, Banteay Meanchey, and Kratie have complained about difficulties in applying for certificates confirming their identities.

They said commune authorities are putting up obstacles to the issuance of the certificate, and said they are worried that they will lose their right to vote in the June 4 elections even though they have already registered.

Election observers said the NEC should remove the new legal procedure so that citizens who have their names on the voter lists and have received official voter name registration receipts can cast ballots.

Korn Savan, an investigation coordinator for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said few people are aware of the requirement for a certificate confirming identity in order to vote because of the limited dissemination of information and timing as the election day approaches.

Nheb Bunchin, spokesman for the royalist political party Funcinpec, agreed that the NEC’s new legal procedure has caused problems for voters, even though the agency, political parties, and other election stakeholders have all urged people to cast ballots.

“The NEC’s legal procedures and formalities are too burdensome,” he told RFA. “People may not go to cast their votes after seeing the procedure, so we are evaluating whether we can create any shortcuts in the procedure and submit a request to the NEC.”

“We are not sure that they will listen to us,” he said. “Nevertheless, we have to reduce the procedures.”

CNRP weighs in

Cambodia’s main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) also raised concerns over the issue that citizens whose names already appear on voter lists may face disenfranchisement.

It has requested that the NEC simplify the procedure to ensure all citizens can vote.

“They are facing difficulties,” said Meng Sopheary, the CNRP’s head of the Election Affairs and Legislation Department. “First, the legal procedure is a bit complicated. Second, they have to spend time [getting the necessary documents]. Third, they have to spend money on transportation [to get to the offices] because some of them work far away, or have migrated to neighboring countries to work, and they have to return.”

“Such expenses, including their time, are reasons they cannot get certificates confirming their identities for voting,” she said. “This will affect the elections because they will not be able to cast their votes.”

In response to the CNRP’s request, the NEC said it can only request that all micro-financial institutions return IDs for citizens who have put up the cards as collateral in exchange for loans, so that the citizens can use them to vote in the upcoming elections.

Reported by Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Cambodia’s Lower Sesan 2 Dam Reservoir Used to Launder Illegal Timber: Police

A company owned by business magnate Kith Meng is using its license to clear a reservoir for the Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province as a cover to launder illegally logged timber, according to a report by the country’s police force.

Ang & Associates Lawyers, a subsidiary of Kith Meng’s Royal Group, has been logging timber from areas outside the 36,000-hectare (89,000-acre) area earmarked for the 400-megawatt dam’s reservoir and selling it to buyers across the border in Vietnam, said the report, posted to the website of the National Police on Tuesday.

Royal Group is constructing the dam in Stung Treng’s Sesan district along with Chinese partners and provided Ang & Associates with a contract to begin clearing the reservoir in 2012.

“Forest destruction activities in Sesan district and timber smuggling for sale in Vietnam is ongoing in the name of the company clearing the Lower Sesan 2 reservoir, owned by business tycoon Kith Meng, but the relevant authorities have ignored it and failed to prevent it,” the report said.

A ban on timber exports from Cambodia to Vietnam has been in effect since January 2016.

An Ang & Associates’ manager named Seng “colludes with and recruits” local residents to log outside the reservoir area, collects the timber, and “puts the logs at the bottom of the reservoir to make the illegal timber seem legal,” it added.

The report cited unnamed sources as saying that Kith Meng—an Australian citizen—had handed the logging operation over to another businessman, who in turn passed it on to two men named Tim Bunlin and San Choy. They are purchasing timber from area communes and laundering it in the reservoir, it said.

Local communities have expressed concerns over the loss of natural resources in the area and warned of an environmental crisis if the practice is not ended, according to the report, which makes no mention of whether authorities plan to investigate.

‘Massive destruction’

On Wednesday, villagers from Sre Kor commune told RFA’s Khmer Service that several groups of people have destroyed forest in Sesan district’s Phnom Krala Pos mountain area and a conservation area in Siem Pang district, using tractors and logging trucks to transport the timber to the Lower Sesan 2 reservoir.

A villager named Puth Khoeun said a logging trail was cut through the forest last year to transport the timber, some of which originates from an area in between the Sesan and Sre Pok rivers near the border with Laos, known as the Koh (Island) area.

“Smaller logging trucks transport during the daytime and larger ones for transporting both inside and outside of the country usually do so at 6:00 p.m. or later,” he said.

“This is a truly massive kind of destruction.”

According to Sre Kor commune chief Siek Mekong, the deforestation is being carried out “in various regions by various groups,” including residents and timber traders from elsewhere in the country.

He said that due to the vast size of the reservoir, it is impossible for commune authorities to know how much of the timber had been harvested from other areas and deposited there.

“Besides looking at the size of the reservoir area, we can’t truly know because we don’t have concrete data,” he said.

Ouch Leng, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, told RFA that logging activities outside the reservoir area have been occurring for “several years,” and called on relevant ministries to carry out a full investigation of the issue.

“Kith Meng has no knowledge of this—it’s his subordinates who seek timber from outside to store at the reservoir before supplying it to saw mills owned by the Vietnamese and Chinese,” he said, without providing details.

“They are the ones who order such timber and process it for export, the construction of homes, or sale at various depots throughout Cambodia.”

Company response

Responding to the allegations, Ang & Associates representative Um Reth denied that the company had transported timber for laundering, saying it had yet to finish clearing timber from the 36,000-hectare reservoir area.

He added that the harvested timber is used to supply the domestic market only after strict inspection by officials from the Stung Treng provincial Department of Agriculture or the Forestry Administration.

“Without such examination by expert officials, the timber could not be transported out of the reservoir,” he said.

“All timber loads must be accompanied by authorization letters … and expert officials conduct examinations and measurements prior to issuing any authorization letter for transport.”

Um Reth’s denial was echoed by Lean Seng, director of Stung Treng province’s Department of Agriculture, who the Cambodia Daily quoted as saying “it doesn’t happen … officials from the Agriculture Ministry have come to inspect.”

The Daily was also able to reach Kith Meng by telephone, but he told the paper he was in a meeting in Beijing and hung up.

EIA report

Attempts by RFA to contact Ministry of Environment spokesperson Sao Sopheap about logging in Sesan district went unanswered Wednesday, though he has previously said the ministry is looking into the findings of a May 8 report by U.K.-based watchdog Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), which documented timber smuggling from Cambodia to Vietnam.

In that report, entitled “Repeat Offender: Vietnam’s persistent trade in illegal timber,” the EIA said some 300,000 cubic meters of timber has been smuggled out of Cambodia and “legitimized in Vietnam … [through] kickbacks [that] are likely to have amounted to more than U.S. $13 million since the beginning of November 2016.”

“Not only are Vietnamese officials corruptly profiting, but so too is the Vietnamese state, formally taxing the illegal traffic of logs and so effectively taking a cut of the illegal businesses it has sanctioned,” the report said.

At the time the report was published, Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment acknowledged that illegal deforestation is occurring in the country and said it would investigate the EIA’s claims.

Reported by Chanthy Men for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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