Khmer News in En

Cambodia’s Land Compensation Issues Persist

About 70 people from three different communities in Cambodia staged a demonstration in front of Banteay Meanchey provincial hall on Wednesday in an effort to prod the government into action over unsettled land claims.

Residents from the Thma Puok and Ou Chrov districts along with the Poipet Railroad community told RFA’s Khmer Service that local officials have ignored their repeated pleas for compensation for a railway being built in their village.

A representative from Poipet railroad land community in Poipet city’s Phsar Kandal commune, Vorn Voan told RFA’s Khmer Service that they have asked municipal authorities 37 times to provide them with settlements, but all they have gotten is a government runaround.

Provincial authorities have told community representatives they can only launch a new inspection of the places where the protestors are living and compile a report for the ministries to evaluate later.

“Residents are facing difficulties,” Vorn Voan said. “If they are still living on the side of the railroad, when they go out for work, they leave their kids alone.”

He added: “They already face such difficulties now when the train is not yet in operation. What will happen when the train is in operation and railroad is completed?”

The railroad linking Phnom Penh with Poipet city on the Thai-Cambodian border is expected to begin operations soon, but residents say they have not been compensated for the noise and danger caused by the construction.

An uneven application

Sum Chankea, the province’s coordinating officer for the human rights group ADHOC, described the settlements in the area as uneven.

“In some places, they have completely settled the case, but the land has not yet been redistributed to residents,” he said.

During a press conference on Jan. 4, Environment Minister Say Sam Al told reporters that the government had “already cleaned up the issues” related to economic land concessions, but the demonstrations indicate that the problems have yet to be solved.

Economic land concessions (ELCs) have been at the heart of land disputes between the government and its citizens as residents are often forced off their land so that it can be exploited.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has issued concessions to more than 2.1 million hectares of Cambodian land to investors, including major Chinese and Vietnamese companies and local firms with ties to the governing Cambodian People’s Party (C.P.P.), according to a 2015 report by the human rights group LICADHO.

While Hun Sen’s government has been responsible for issuing the land concessions, he has taken some steps to disarm a potent political issue.

In February 2016, Hun Sen announced that the government was taking back about 1 million hectares from investment companies that had been granted the concessions.

At the time he said the land would be doled out to the poor, and the government also reduced the duration of economic land concession investments from 90 years to only 50 years. At the time Hun Sen said the land taken back would be doled out to the poor, but information on the plans has been scarce.

Reported by Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Cambodia’s Hun Sen Thanks Laos for Cheap Electricity

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen praised Laos for selling cheap power to his country on Tuesday, even though residents of Cambodia’s Stung Treng province pay double what their neighbors across the border pay for electricity.

“I want to extend my thanks to the Laotian government for selling electricity at a cheap price to Cambodia, mostly for consumption in Stung Treng and Preah Vihear provinces,” Hun Sen said in speech marking the opening of a new Cambodia-Lao international border checkpoint.

While Hun Sen failed to detail the amount and cost of the Lao-produced electricity, or whether Cambodia will continue to buy electricity once the Lower Sesan 2 dam located in Stung Treng province is completed, residents complained that the cost of power is still too high.

Stung Treng residents pay about 950 riels (U.S. $0.24) per kilowatt-hour, which is about twice the cost of electricity across the border in Laos.

“I want the price of electricity to come down because now the price is 950 riels,” Tem Sreymom, a resident in the town of Stung Treng, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“I want the cost to be as cheap as it is in Laos,” she said. “For my house, I spent around 70,000 to 80,000 riels-a-month (U.S. $ 17.43 to U.S. $19.77).”

Since 2009, the Cambodian government has purchased five to seven megawatts of electricity annually from Laos for consumption in Stung Treng province.

The electricity is generated from the  Houay Ho dam in the Sekong River basin in Laos, where the government plans to make the country the “battery for Southeast Asia.”

Laos and many other Asian countries are on a dam-building spree as they try to harness the power of the Mekong and other rivers. While the Lao government sees power generation as a way to bootstrap the country’s economy, the projects are still controversial for their environmental impact and their financial arrangements.

According to International Rivers, an environmental advocacy group, the current Lao hydropower development plan includes 72 new large dams, 12 of which are under construction and nearly 25 in advanced planning stages.

The Lower Sesan 2 dam is expected to begin generating electricity in 2017. It is seen as a critical piece of Cambodia’s national power grid, and has been touted as a way to reduce the cost of electricity.

The dam, located in Stung Treng province’s Sesan district, is expected to generate up to 400 megawatts of electricity and is the biggest hydropower plant in Cambodia.

Cambodian authorities have promised that electricity prices will drop dramatically once the dam comes on line.

Reported by Sereyroth Chuop for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Cambodians Say Vietnamese Forced Them Off Family Land

Vietnamese authorities, some carrying arms, have suddenly begun preventing Cambodian citizens from cultivating family farms that lie along the border between the two nations, local residents tell RFA’s Khmer Service.

While the family plots straddle the border between the two countries, Cambodian residents tell RFA they have been farming them for years without interference.

“Although the border marker was placed inside my plot of land, I could still farm it in the past, but now they don’t allow me to do that,” Keo Sanea told RFA on Monday.

Keo Sanea said the Cambodian and Vietnamese authorities placed border marker 198 about 20 meters inside the three-hectare plot of land that makes up her family’s farm in 2009, but that the two countries had agreed to allow families to farm the land that historically crossed the border.

That is until 2017, when Vietnamese authorities this month prohibited her from cultivating the land on Vietnam’s side of the border near the Svay Rieng province’s Kok Tek village.

Keo Sanea is not the only Cambodian resident who said that Vietnamese authorities were forcing her to quit the cross-border cultivation.

A Seng Mao village farmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA that about 20 armed Vietnamese border guards stopped her family from farming and cultivating on their rice paddies and confiscated their harvest.

The farmer said her family has been cultivating and farming rice on their plots of land since 1992 without interference from the Vietnamese.

“Nowadays, I worry that perhaps I cannot get my land back, because the border line already cut off my land,” one farmer told RFA.

‘I lost my land left from my ancestors’

Another said that the family had been farming the same land for generations.

“I lost my land left from my ancestors,” said that farmer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “This place is my rice paddy.”

On January 8, more than 30 Cambodian youth border activists accompanied by local residents visited the border between markers 147 and 148, located near Svay Rieng province’s Thnar Thnung commune.

There, at least 10 Cambodian families said they lost rice paddies ranging in size from 2 to 7 hectares to Vietnam.

Both the residents and border activists said that existing maps of the area show that Cambodian territory bulged into Vietnam, but the border demarcated bilaterally by Cambodia and Vietnam runs in a straight line.

Cambodian landowners told RFA they have seen Vietnamese authorities stop Cambodian residents from farming, prompting officials from both sides into talks.

After the negotiations, Vietnamese authorities asked the farmers to suspend their cultivation until after the Cambodian national elections in 2018.

Var Kim Hong, who heads Cambodia’s border affairs committee, told RFA that residents are allowed to cultivate cross-border plots of land according to their past practices.

“I have yet to receive any news regarding this issue from the Svay Reang working group,” he said.

Border politics

Kim Sok, a social development and political observer active on border issues, told RFA that Vietnam often makes small border incursions.

“They placed border markers, dug ponds, constructed buildings inside Cambodia,” he said. “And there was no strong reaction, so they grabbed the land and banned Cambodian residents from cultivating on their own plots.”

The border issue has been a potent political issue for both Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party as the CNRP has criticized Prime Minister Hun Sen for allegedly giving territory to Vietnam, and Hun Sen has retaliated by jailing politicians who have attacked him on the issue.

Vietnam and Cambodia have had a fraught relationship for centuries, but the animosity with Hun Sen dates from the 1979-89 Vietnamese occupation that ended the murderous rule of the Khmer Rouge.

Hun Sen was appointed prime minister during that period when Hanoi had control over Cambodia.

As Cambodian foreign minister and then prime minister, Hun Sen played an important role in the 1991 Paris Peace Talks that brokered peace among Cambodia’s warring factions.

The border dispute has also vexed Vietnam as the two countries have been working to complete demarcation of the border for more than two decades.

In November, however, Hun Sen and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc agreed ask the government of France, the former colonial ruler of Cambodia and Vietnam, for assistance in finally settling the long-festering dispute.

Reported by Savi Khorn and Chhin Uon for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Monday Turns Black Again in Cambodia as Protests Restart

Cambodia’s “Black Monday” protest campaign restarted this week after it was put on hold for two weeks as it appeared the government was preparing to release jailed activists and an election commission official.

When the release of the “Kem Sokha Five” and land-rights activist Tep Vanny failed to materialize, Black Monday organizers resumed their protests on Jan. 9.

Activists wearing black have demonstrated for 36 Mondays in an effort to win the release of four human rights workers and an election official who were jailed on charges widely seen as attempts to muzzle the political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Lim Mony, Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, all workers for ADHOC (the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association), and National Election Commission (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya were arrested in April.

They are accused of attempting to pay hush money to opposition leader Kem Sokha’s purported mistress in the government’s wide-ranging probe into the alleged affair.

Kem Sokha received a royal pardon in December at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen for charged related to the government investigation. His pardon and that of a local Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) official raised hope that the others would go free.

That hope appeared to be dashed, however, when negotiations broke down after Kem Sokha refused to make a statement endorsed by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) denouncing anyone who made derogatory statements related to the paternity of Hun Sen’s eldest son, sources have told RFA.

In addition, the Black Monday protestors hoped to free Tep Vanny, who was convicted on Sept. 19 of insulting and obstructing public officials and was sentenced to six months in prison in relation to a protest in November 2011 near Hun Sen’s residence.

Tep Vanny gained prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from the neighborhood surrounding the urban lake in Phnom Penh.

Her attorney was absent from the courtroom in what some human rights organizations called an abuse of her right to a fair trial.

The lake was filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.

Seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents— is a major cause of protests in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Laos.

Hun Sen and other officials have condemned the protests as a “color revolution.”

Over the years, Hun Sen has repeatedly inveighed against “color revolutions,” named after a series of popular movements that used passive resistance to topple governments in countries of the former Soviet Union during the 2000s.

Reported by Samnang Rann for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Cambodian Sand Could Build a Foundation for Legal Action in Singapore

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An environmental non-governmental agency is searching for legal grounds for a lawsuit that could uncover the truth about what happened to millions of dollars in sand that disappeared from Cambodia over the past decade.

Mother Nature Cambodia founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that a Singaporean law firm, Eugene Thuraisingam, had agreed to collect information on Singaporean sand purchases for a possible lawsuit against the city-state.

Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA that they were looking at a pair of legal tracks that they could follow if they decide to sue.

“The first is to file a lawsuit in relation to sand dredging in Koh Kong province that has caused serious impacts on the livelihood of local residents,” he said. “On the second, we know that the sand has been exported illegally from Cambodia without paying tax, so it involved in high-profile corruption cases.”

U.N. data shows that Cambodia exported $752 million in sand to Singapore over the past eight years, but Phnom Penh only reported that about $5 million worth of sand was exported to the island nation that is the world’s top destination for the building material.

Driven by the growing demand for sand, either for concrete for construction, or in Singapore’s case for expanding its territory, the demand for sand has been outstripping the supply.

According to information in the World Atlas, the United States is the biggest exporter of sand, with Cambodia coming in at number seven. The Observatory of Economic Complexity reports that 97 percent of Cambodia’s sand goes to Singapore.

Cambodia’s position as a top sand exporter sits at odds with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s policies.

Sand bans

In 2013 Hun Sen imposed a ban on dredging along the Mekong and Ton Le Sap, and in 2015 the Cambodian government put a hold on new applications for licenses to conduct sand-dredging operations in the country’s rivers and lakes in order to study the environmental and social impact, but it is unclear if those moves had any effect, as sand mining appears to be continuing.

In a 2016 report, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) found the Cambodian government had continued to supply licenses to sand miners despite the bans.

In April the government decided to auction four two-year sand dredging licenses along the Mekong River, under the auspices of “restoring navigation of the waterway.”

Four other licenses were granted for designated “green zone” areas, where “there is no risk of riverbank collapse” while nearly 70 new sand dredging licenses were issued without holding public auctions or requiring the companies to make publicly available environmental impact assessment results.

In all, CCHR found there were 84 companies holding licenses to dredge sand as of May 2016, despite the government’s bans.

The discrepancy between the government’s words and actions troubles Gonzalez-Davidson.

“I don’t believe, at all, that the government or relevant ministries such as the Ministry of Commerce or Ministry of Mines and Energy have a genuine will to seek a solution,” he said. “They just pretend by acting as if in a theater in order to cheat Cambodian citizens so that they can continue their activities of exporting sand overseas.”

The Khmer-speaking Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia back to his native Spain in 2015, after he had long campaigned against the planned Chhay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province. The 108-megawatt dam is backed by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmaker Lao Meng Khin and his wife, who have evicted thousands of families from land around the country.

Sand is big business

The world’s sand mining industry is estimated to be a $70 billion a year industry with illegal trade in the material worth even more, according to a 2016 report in The Sydney Morning Herald.

A 2015 report in Wired detailed the emergence of so-called “sand mafias” that use bribery, intimidation and killings to control the illegal sand trade.

Thanks in a large part to the world’s sand, Singapore is 22 percent larger than it was in the 1950s, according to the Sydney Herald report. The newspaper said the island is pushing ahead with plans to import titanic amounts of sand to artificially expand its territory by 6,200 hectares by 2030.

Singapore is getting larger, but the sand mining that aids its growth often wreaks havoc on rivers, deltas, and marine ecosystems in Cambodia and elsewhere.

Gonzalez-Davidson said they were also looking at filing a similar lawsuit in India. According to a 2013 report in the Cambodia Daily some $1.5 million worth of Cambodian sand turned up in India.

Meng Saktheara, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told RFA that Cambodia doesn’t export sand to India, and he criticized Mother Nature for exploring a legal action.

“This is not a good solution, as it creates complicated issue,” Meng Saktheara told RFA.

“I request civil society organizations, if possible, to undertake comprehensive studies so as to help the government [in dealing with this issue]. Say, if the findings related to 30 countries, please point out which countries in order that the government asks the customs of those countries to reveal which companies are really involved in this issue.”

Gonzalez-Davidson, disagreed, saying the ministry should carry out their own studies.

“I encourage relevant ministries to carry out [the studies] themselves. And if any ministry does not have the capacity to do it, perhaps the issue can be pushed to other units such as the Anti-Corruption Unit,” he said.

Reported by Chandara Yang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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Cambodian Prisoners Used as Bargaining Chips

High ranking officials with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) attempted to use four imprisoned human rights activists and a jailed election official as bargaining chips in their effort to split the opposition party, RFA’s Khmer Service has learned.

According to a draft of the letter dated Dec. 7, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Kem Sokha was given a statement approved by the CPP in which he would denounce and expel from the party anyone who attacked the family, spouse and children of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

CNRP president Sam Rainsy told RFA that talks aimed at freeing the prisoners failed when Kem Sokha did not agree to follow the CPP’s order that he says was aimed at destroying the CNRP leadership, and it giving authorities an excuse to leave them in jail.

The draft of the letter obtained by RFA reads:

“On behalf of the CNRP and on my own behalf, I would like to vehemently condemn any ignorant individuals who have insulted the spouse of Samdech Hun Sen, saying that she was the mistress of former leader of Vietnam Mr. Le Doc Tho; and those ignorant individuals who also accused the eldest son of Samdech Hun Sen, Mr. Hun Manet, of being the biological son of {the late Vietnamese leader] Mr. Le Doc Tho.

Such insulting sayings cannot be acceptable. On behalf of the CNRP and myself, I would like to publicly condemn those insulting groups. They are neither different from gangsters, nor equal to animal or evil beings that are more dangerous than poisonous animals; by behaving in such a way that destroys and looks down on leaders of their own race.

In the event that those ignorant individuals are members of the CNRP, the party is entitled to expel them from the party.

Respectfully to: – Uncle [Kem Sokha] to kindly review this draft; the higher echelons have already approved the contents. From me, Soy Sopheap.”

Soy Sopheap is the director of Deum Ampil Media Center that is widely viewed as being allied with the CPP, although Soy Sopheap says they are independent.

Once the statement was issued, then evidence that Sam Rainsy, who has been living in exile since late 2015, insulted the prime minister’s family would surface and the CNRP would be forced to expel him, Sam Rainsy said.

Intrigue at the party

“One day, he [Mr. Hun Sen] will use the contents of this statement to let the CNRP or Mr. Kem Sokha himself turn to fight against me, by accusing me of saying something insulting,” Sam Rainsy told RFA. “Afterwards [Hun Sen would use] a number of his CNRP insiders to come out and distort the story against me.”

Sam Rainsy left Cambodia last year after he was given a two-year prison sentence in a defamation case, leading the CNRP to name Kem Sokha its acting president. His conviction in the defamation case is but one of the court actions taken by Cambodia’s government or the ruling Cambodian People’s party against him.

Earlier this year Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered authorities to prevent Sam Rainsy from entering the country.

Lim Mony, Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, all workers for ADHOC (the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association) and National Election Commission (NEC) deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya were arrested in April.

They are accused of attempting to pay hush money to Kem Sokha’s purported mistress in the government’s wide-ranging probe into the alleged affair.

Paternity allegations and pardons

In December Kem Sokha and a local Cambodia National Rescue Party official Seang Chet were granted royal pardons in the case against the CNRP leader, but the other five people accused in the case remain in prison.

They were pardoned after Prime Minister Hun Sen, who also heads the ruling CPP, asked King Norodom Sihamoni to issue them.

Hun Sen was bothered by accusations posted on Facebook lasts year by a CNRP official living the U.S questioning the paternity of the prime minister’s son Hun Manet.

After the posts appeared, Hun Sen accused the CNRP of secretly engineering the effort and warned that he would not let the CNRP rest in peace, despite an immediate statement from the opposition party disowning the comments.

On May 16, the CNRP dismissed the party official and Sam Rainsy expressed “deep regret” over the posts in a June 14 letter to Hun Sen.

While pardons for the “Kem Sokha Five,” were expected soon afterwards, they have not been forthcoming.

Interior Minister Sar Kheng told reporters on Dec. 7 that he expected the five to be freed in late 2016 or early 2017, but Sar Kheng dismissed questions about their release, saying it was under the purview of the courts.

“We still have plans for the talks, but we don’t know when yet since we have a lot of works to do early this year,” he told RFA on Jan 2.”

Reported by Sokunthea Hong for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.

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