Khmer News in En

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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Cambodia Opposition Chief Urges Nonviolence For Candidates Ahead of Polls

The head of Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Wednesday called on his party’s candidates to remain above the fray amid a slew of threats from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the lead up to local elections set for next month.

Speaking in the capital Phnom Penh ahead of a 12-day campaign period beginning on May 20, CNRP president Kem Sokha told a gathering of 103 “top ranked” female candidates that the party must adhere to nonviolence and avoid trading insults with the CPP ahead of the country’s June 4 commune elections.

“We are not cowards, brothers and sisters, but we are well aware that we are marching towards our goal,” he said.

“Let me give you the example of a race: If we want to overtake our challengers and they turn to block us with their legs, should we bother ourselves with attacking them back? Do not engage, just continue on, brothers and sisters!”

Kem Sokha made specific reference to a warning by defense minister Tea Banh on Sunday that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting an election win by the ruling party and quickly suppress any demonstrations by CNRP members like those that followed the opposition’s loss in national elections in 2013.

“Let the people make a judgment in regard to those who want to ‘smash our teeth’ or whatever they plan,” he said.

“We really do want their votes, but the people can make their own decisions. If they prefer those who want to ‘smash our teeth,’ they should vote for them. But if they prefer gentle people, such as those in the CNRP, please vote for the CNRP.”

Kem Sokha suggested that the people of Cambodia will “eventually elect peace lovers” to lead the country, adding that the CNRP will “opt for a nonviolent approach in both words and deeds” during the upcoming campaign.

Tea Banh’s remarks came less than a week after Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen warned of civil war if the public does not support his CPP in local elections on June 4.

Hun Sen, who has already ruled Cambodia for three decades, has made similar threats in recent months, with CPP-controlled media regularly alluding to violence if the party loses.

In response to Kem Sokha’s speech, CPP lawmaker and spokesperson Sok Ey San said Wednesday that the people of Cambodia are already well aware of which party can maintain peace in the country and which one will be “stirring up trouble” after next month’s polls.

“The people don’t need … a party that only knows how to speak lies and cheat them from one issue to another,” he said.

“The people need a constructive party that protects peace for the sake of bringing progress and prosperity to their livelihoods.”

Deputies elected

Also on Wednesday, the CNRP held an extraordinary congress to elect Mu Sochua, Pol Hom and Eng Chhai Eang as the party’s vice presidents after amending a crucial bylaw in a bid to placate the Ministry of Interior, which rejected its previous method of selecting the same leaders in March.

At the conclusion of the extraordinary congress, CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann announced in a press briefing that the three lawmakers had been named vice presidents and said the party will forward official documentation detailing its hierarchy and leadership profiles to the ministry.

Last month, the CNRP amended Article 47 of its internal regulations a second time, after an initial change at another congress in March, to state that if there is no vice president, the steering committee must choose new ones from its members by an absolute majority of votes, which it did Wednesday.

The clash between the CNRP and ministry over the opposition’s leadership selection process began in March after former party president Sam Rainsy resigned.

On March 31, the CNRP notified the Ministry of Interior of amendments to its party bylaws after the ministry had declared the opposition’s appointment of Kem Sokha as president and the three lawmakers as vice presidents illegitimate, throwing its participation in the upcoming elections into question.

The ministry had claimed that the appointments during a March 2 extraordinary congress ran afoul of the CNRP’s statute, based on documentation the party filed in 2013, requiring a moratorium on electing a new president for 18 months after the post was vacated.

The CNRP had amended the statute at the congress before appointing new leadership.

On Wednesday, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak said the ministry had yet to receive an official letter from the CNRP concerning the election of the opposition’s vice presidents and declined to say whether the new appointments were done in accordance with the party’s bylaws.

“I don’t dare comment on anything yet,” he said. “We will have to wait for the letter before we can make a determination.”

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

Reported by Neang Ieng and Vandeth Van for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia's Defense Chief Threatens to 'Smash Teeth' of Political Opposition

In the latest in a series of government threats against opposition political forces in Cambodia, Cambodian defense minister Tea Banh warned on Sunday that the army will “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a win by the ruling party in elections next month.

Speaking at the opening of a public building in Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia, Tea Banh said that the country’s military will quickly suppress any protests by Cambodia National Rescue Party members like those that followed the CNRP’s loss in national elections in 2013.

“If you lose the elections and contest the results by taking to the streets to protest, we will smash your teeth,” the defense minister said.

“I’m warning you in strong terms that we won’t allow such protests again.”

Tea Banh’s remarks came less than a week after Cambodia’s prime minister Hun Sen warned of civil war if the public does not support his ruling Cambodian People’s Party in local elections across the country on June 4.  

Hun Sen, who has already ruled Cambodia for three decades, has made similar threats in recent months, with CPP-controlled media regularly alluding to violence if the party loses.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible CNRP win in national elections scheduled for 2018.

‘Serving the party, not the people’

Phnom Penh-based political commentator Meas Ny told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday that Tea Banh had exceeded the limits of his authority by threatening Cambodian voters.

“As minister of defense, he has now crossed the line. It seems that he serves Cambodia’s ruling party rather than its people,” Meas Ny said.

“It is also a violation of the constitution that a senior official of the country’s armed force should interfere with the responsibilities of the Ministry of Interior,” he said.

“The armed forces should deal only with armed conflicts. It is against the law for the armed forces to suppress or kill civilians who exercise their freedom of speech by protesting peacefully.”

Also speaking to RFA, CNRP spokesperson Yim Sovann questioned the motive behind Tea Banh’s weekend remarks.

“I don’t understand why he has chosen to threaten the public with statements like this,” he said.

“The CNRP listens to the people. We respect their will.”

Cambodia’s National Election Commission will convene a meeting in the next two weeks to address the issue of threats and warnings that members of both parties have made in the run-up to the June vote, with the NEC looking to see what measures must be taken to avoid future incitement, the commission has said.

Reported and translated by Nareth Muong for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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