Khmer News in En

Environmental Experts Voice Concern About Effects of Dam Projects in Cambodia

Cambodian environmental experts have expressed concern that the country’s various hydropower dams will harm the livelihoods of people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin, especially since the government is permitting investment projects to be built along the country’s rivers despite expected negative impacts.

Experts attending an international conference on environmental change, agricultural sustainability, and economic development in the Lower Mekong Basin in Phnom Penh on March 16-18, said the dam construction will damage Lake Tonle Sap and the Sesan, Sekong, and Sre Pork rivers and their environs, which are home to endangered species and protected forests.

The rivers also provide a source of income for many rural people who make a living from them, they said.

Seak Sophath, head of the Department of Natural Resources Management at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, believes that policymakers and local authorities should conduct thorough studies on the impacts of the dam development projects and create strategic plans to deal with their consequences in order to mitigate risks to the rivers and to the lives of people who depend on them.

“One should take into account the other objectives of the dam construction,” he said. “Should they be built just to generate electricity or should they be built to hold water for agricultural purposes and retain water for human consumption during a dry season?”

“A clear strategic plan about each dam contract would need to be thoroughly considered,” he said.

The Ministry of Mines and Energy recently said the government will allow hydropower dam investment projects to be built along Cambodia’s rivers even if they have negative impacts on people and the environment.

Experts are also concerned that climate change, and in particular the construction of dams along the Mekong River, pose threats to the regular flow of water to lower-lying rivers.

Land concessions, mine exploration, and illegal logging are also having a negative impact on the rivers, they said.

In 2003, the government identified 60 potential sites for dam construction projects across Cambodia, most of which were on the Mekong River and its tributaries.

Two years later the government approved the first major hydropower project—Kamchay Dam—built by China’s Sinohydro Corporation, the country’s largest dam builder.

The dam, which became fully operational in December 2011, flooded 2,000 hectares of Bokor National Park in southern Cambodia’s Kampot province, home to several endangered species and an important resource for local communities.

Since then, the Chinese have developed scores of other dams along the Mekong River and its tributaries in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian nations, prompting backlashes from environmental activists and residents alike.

In 2016, the government allowed the Royal Group Company to conduct a feasibility study for the construction projects of three dams in along the lower Sekong River in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province.

Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Cambodia Rights Official Calls for Minister of Justice to Resign

The president of an influential human rights group in Cambodia called on the country’s minister of justice to resign Wednesday for “turning a blind eye” to what he said was the “arbitrary detention” of his staff members, held amid an investigation into an alleged political sex scandal.

Thun Saray, the head of Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that bribery charges brought against Yi Soksan, Lem Mony, Ny Sokha and Nay Vanda were “entirely unjustified” and slammed Cambodia’s top justice official for allowing them to remain imprisoned.

“I challenge Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana, who is highly educated, to step down for turning a blind eye to the arbitrary detention of my staff, who are innocent,” he said during a call-in show.

“If I were him I would resign. It’s very sad that there is a lack of conscience in Khmer people like him who blindly follow orders just to keep their posts. They should be ashamed of their acts.”

On Monday, Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld a decision that extended pre-trial detention for the Adhoc officials, saying they pose a threat to stability and could flee if they are released. The four have been held since May while an investigating judge continues to examine their case.

The bribery charges against them, which carry a maximum 10-year prison sentence, stem from traveling expenses Adhoc provided a hairdresser when she sought the group’s help after being named as opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha’s mistress.

The opposition has dismissed the investigation in Kem Sokha’s alleged affair and the several cases connected to it as politically motivated.

On Wednesday, Thun Saray, who has been in Canada since October and failed to attend a Phnom Penh Municipal Court hearing that month on the case involving his staff members, said Cambodia should heed the concerns of the international community over the continued detention of the four Adhoc officials.

“International human rights bodies have voiced their concerns over this injustice,” he said, referring to calls from Wan-Hea Lee, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, and others for their release.

“The government shouldn’t treat that as interference into the internal affairs of Cambodia. This country is bound by several international treaties. The human right workers have done nothing wrong to warrant such arrest and detention.”

Thun Saray also questioned why Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government had targeted groups like his, which work to benefit the people and protect their human rights.

“We educate people on their rights and freedom, and we should be appreciated for this,” he said.

“Instead, we have been treated badly and accused of inciting people.”

In addition to the four Adhoc officials, a fifth alleged accomplice—former Adhoc official and current elections official Ny Chakrya—is also being detained while an investigation continues. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Ny Chakrya’s extended pre-trial detention on March 24.

Culture of dialogue

Thun Saray’s call for Ang Vong Vathana’s resignation came a day after the Adhoc chief posted a video online calling for the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to reduce political tension with the CNRP and return to a “culture of dialogue” with the opposition.

He also urged the government to release all “political prisoners” and create a favorable environment for free and fair commune elections, scheduled for June 4 this year.

“As a non-partisan individual, I have seen political tension ratchet up and this raises general concerns over the uncertainty of Cambodia’s future,” he said.

“If the ruling party continues to restrict freedom of expression and suppress opposition parties, Cambodia will stray much further from the democratic path. This will lead to people losing faith in the electoral process and eventually violent competition for power will be inevitable.”

Thun Saray said the CPP cannot rely on the tactics it employed to win previous elections and must change its approach to politics.

“Cambodian voters are like people who are watching a movie—they don’t like bad characters,” he said.

“They sympathize with gentle characters or victims of persecution. The ruling party might win back its support if it plays good characters.”

CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the June elections through a variety of different measures, including a new law governing political parties and what they say are politically motivated charges against CNRP members.

The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The opposition party won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for 35 years, a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.

Reported by Sarada Taing for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia’s Government Questions Opposition Appointments

Cambodia’s minister of the interior on Tuesday questioned the legitimacy of the opposition’s newly appointed leadership, saying their promotion may violate internal regulations and could prevent the party from running in upcoming commune elections.

Speaking at a highway ribbon-cutting ceremony in Kampong Speu province, Sar Kheng said the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) might have infringed on a mandatory grace period by recently replacing exiled former president Sam Rainsy.

“What I have heard is that under the CNRP’s previous statute, the position of the president of the party would have to be left vacant—if the president was absent—for no less than 18 months,” the minister said in an address carried by Bayon radio station.

“Nonetheless its party congress was convened to elect the new president in two months, which fell short of the required 18 months. How could that be possible? I guess they might have breached their party statute.”

The CNRP convened its extraordinary congress on March 2 to amend some articles of its party statute and appoint Kem Sokha as president, along with deputies Mu Sochua, Pol Ham and Eng Chhai Eang.

Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on charges of defamation that supporters say were questionable rulings by a court system beholden to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

He resigned as CNRP chief on Feb. 11 in order to preserve the party in the face of a new law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, among other changes.

The law, which was approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, passed with 44 votes by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), despite a CNRP boycott of parliament in protest. It was signed into effect last week.

Sar Kheng said Tuesday he is weighing the situation and warned that if he finds the CNRP to have violated its statute by appointing new leadership, “it will be hard for the party to be recognized.”

“Other parties might take issue with [such a violation] as well,” he said.

“The CNRP may have referred to the new law on political parties as its [reason for convening its party congress] … but that might not be correct. A clear decision will need to be made about this.”

‘Compelled’ to convene

CNRP deputy Eng Chhai Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that his party was compelled to convene its extraordinary congress and amend its statute before the new CPP-initiated law on political parties went into effect, or risk being dissolved.

“According to the new law on political parties, we were given only 90 days to elect our new leaders, so we were left with very few options,” the deputy said.

“We were compelled to rearrange our party apparatus to suit the situation, even though our party statute stated that such arrangements shouldn’t be made unless the president had been absent for 18 months,” he said.

“The new law required our party to have a president [within 90 days].”

Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), told RFA that the CNRP could be seen as illegitimate if it is found to be in breach of its party statute.

But he called for compromise, noting that the country’s June 4 commune elections are rapidly approaching.

“This case should be treated as an extraordinary and politically motivated one,” he said.

“A new president is needed to lead the party. I think the ministry of the interior should base its consideration into this matter on practical circumstances.”

Meeting supporters

Also on Tuesday, Kem Sokha met with CNRP commune chief candidates at the opposition headquarters in the capital Phnom Penh, telling them he is confident the party will be able to implement its political platform after making gains in local polls.

He stressed that the CNRP is committed to “improving the lives of all people” through a decentralized power structure.

“No matter what order is rendered from the top, if it badly affects our people and national interests, the CNRP commune councilors shall not implement it,” he said.

Kem Sokha said the CNRP would honor a pledge to provide all senior citizens with a stipend of at least 40,000 riel (U.S. $10) per month and work to “make Cambodia a better place to live.”

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told RFA Tuesday that the ruling party is “impressed” by the CNRP’s goals, but should not be discounted ahead of the upcoming elections.

“The CPP has set out and implemented its political platform,” he said.

“Over the past six months, the CPP has done a lot to improve public services and we will continue to do better.”

CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the June elections through a variety of different measures, including the passage of the political party law.

The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The opposition party won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for 35 years, a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe may foreshadow the general election in 2018.

Reported by Neang Ieng and Moniroth Morm for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Cambodia’s Electoral Body Weighing Legality of Opposition Campaign Slogan

Cambodia’s electoral body said Friday it is weighing whether the opposition must modify a campaign slogan the ruling party has characterized as incitement and threatened legal action over, as the country gears up for local commune elections in June.

In a press conference detailing the preliminary list of candidates who will stand for commune chief this summer, Mean Satik of the National Election Committee (NEC) told reporters that officials are reviewing whether the slogan runs afoul of campaign laws.

“For now, the NEC has already received this information [on the CNRP’s slogan] and is considering how to resolve the issue in question when political campaigning begins” on May 20, he said.

In a statement earlier this week, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) accused the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) of sowing “incitement and troublemaking” with its campaign slogan, adopted during an extraordinary congress session at the end of February.

The ruling party had said it would file a lawsuit against the CNRP if it does not modify the slogan, which reads, “Replace the commune chiefs who serve the party with commune chiefs who serve the people.”

At Friday’s press conference, CPP representative Chan Sok San reiterated the ruling party’s demand that the slogan be changed, but seemed to walk back from the stronger position taken by the CPP earlier this week.

“The ruling party must do whatever is necessary to protect security and social order, whether such a slogan affects it or not,” he said.

“In the name of the ruling party, a statement must be issued to protect against or prevent disorder … This does not mean we are accusing the CNRP [of deliberately causing problems].”

Meng Sotheary, the CNRP’s director of legislation and electoral affairs, told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that her party had no immediate plans to change the slogan or to defend its use in court against the CPP.

Any decision regarding the slogan, which “has nothing to do with incitement” because it does not name a party, would be made by the CNRP’s standing committee, she said.

As of Friday, some 300 CPP commune chiefs across Cambodia had signed letters accusing the opposition of using the “inciting” campaign slogan to fan “disunity,” according to a report by the Cambodia Daily, noting the similarity in language to recently approved legislation that could see whole parties dissolved for such behavior.

CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the country’s June 4 elections through a variety of different measures, including the passage of the political party law approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, despite an opposition boycott of parliament in protest.

The new law bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party and forced former CNRP president Sam Rainsy—in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on defamation charges supporters say were politically motivated—to resign last month to preserve the party.

While the CPP denies orchestrating the letter campaign by ruling party commune chiefs, the complaints are nearly identical to one another, different only in the details of each chief’s list of achievements, the Cambodia Daily said.

It quoted CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay as saying he found it hard to believe that so many CPP commune chiefs would simultaneously and spontaneously make such public complaints without approval from the party leadership.

“The way the CPP operates, they would not do this kind of thing without permission from their leaders. So we assume it could be activity reflecting the original complaint by the ruling party,” he said.

The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The opposition party won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.

Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for 35 years, a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe could foreshadow the general election in 2018.

Political analyst

Also on Friday, jailed Cambodian political analyst and social commentator Kim Sok told reporters that authorities had offered to release him if he pledged to support the CPP.

Kim Sok was arrested on Feb. 17 and charged with inciting social chaos and defamation because of comments made during a radio interview with RFA’s Khmer Service that Prime Minister Hun Sen believed implied his government was behind last year’s murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley.

On Friday, Kim Sok was summoned to Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a further inquiry into the charges against him, but the political analyst said the court did not ask him about his case because his lawyer had asked that the proceedings be postponed.

“The court did not inquire about anything—they wanted me to be a focal point to implement the political plan of the CPP for the next generation if I want to be released,” he said while speaking with reporters at the courthouse.

Kim Sok was unable to explain who had placed such a condition on his release or why he had been asked to represent the ruling party before he was loaded onto a van and returned to Prey Sar Prison, where he is awaiting his trial.

When asked about Kim Sok’s comments, CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San told RFA that the ruling party has plenty of supporters and did not require the political analyst’s services.

“This is simply personal pride—how important does he think he is,” he said.

“As for the CPP, I am of the opinion that we already have enough human resources, so we don’t need to request assistance from Kim Sok. Since the beginning in 1979 up to the present, Kim Sok has never shown up to work for the party.”

Wan-Hea Lee, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, has called for a fair trial conducted by an independent court to determine Kim Sok’s guilt or innocence.
In 2015, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recommended that Cambodia refrain from prosecuting representatives from civil society for expressing their opinions and consider decriminalizing defamation.

Reported by Vuthy Tha and Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Tough Political Party Bill Signed Into Law in Cambodia

Cambodia’s acting head of state has signed into law a controversial bill that gives the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen vast new powers over political parties as the nation heads into local and national elections in June and in 2018.

Say Chhum, president of the Senate from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CCP), signed the bill into law on Wednesday as acting head of Cambodia in the absence of King Norodom Sihamoni who is in China on a medical trip.

The government issued information about its promulgation to the media on Thursday.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) objects to the law because it believes the measure is another effort by Hun Sen and the CCP, which routinely file lawsuits against the party and its leaders, to cripple it in the run-up to the elections.

The new law bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding a top office in a political party.

The CNRP’s former leader Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on charges of defamation that supporters say were questionable rulings by a court system beholden to Hun Sen.

He resigned from the party on Feb. 11, telling the media that he had stepped down to save the CNRP from being dissolved.

The CNRP also objects to Article 18 of the Law on Political Parties.

The article states that “the president and vice president of a political party and components of its steering committee or permanent committee, or an equivalent body to the steering committee or the permanent committee of a political party, shall not be convicted of a crime or misdemeanor which carries an unsuspended jail term.”

The National Assembly approved the bill with little debate on Feb. 20 with 44 votes by the CPP, amid a boycott of parliament by CNRP deputies.

Eight days later, the Senate approved an amended version of the bill with an article allowing the state to dismantle any political parties deemed as secessionist or subversive.

The provision was ordered by Hun Sen, who has used recent public speeches to rail against alleged “color revolutions” aimed at overthrowing his 31-year rule.

The Constitutional Council, comprised of CPP loyalists, ruled on March 3 that changes to the Law on Political Parties were constitutional.

Reported by Sereyvuth Oun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Cambodian Villagers Displaced by Dam Complain of Nonarable Land, Access to Fishing

Cambodian villagers who have been relocated by the government from areas near the U.S. $781 million Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam project on Mekong River tributaries said Thursday that they cannot eke out a living in their new locale.

Forty-seven families from Chrop village in Kbal Rormeas commune of Sesan district in northeastern Cambodia’s Stung Treng province where the dam is being built previously accepted an offer from the government to move to Sre Sranok village, but now complain that life in the new location is even worse than it was before.

The government gave each of the families five hectares of farmland, a house on a 20-by-50-meter (66-by-164-foot) plot, and U.S. $6,000 in cash for agreeing to move to Sre Sranok, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Chrop.

Srey Lebek, who used to live in Chrop, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the new land is too harsh for farming and that Sre Sranok is too far away from the fishing grounds on which many villagers rely to make a living.
“We have faced more hardship after moving here,” he said. “I would therefore like to call on the government and the company to reconsider its compensation policy to ensure that people’s livelihoods are better taken into consideration.”

Speaking at a forum in Phnom Penh on Thursday hosted by the NGO Forum in Cambodia, Srey Lebek said he has been frustrated by being too far away from where he used to fish in the Sesan River to make a living. He also said he cannot grow rice in the new location.

The displaced fisherman was speaking at a forum funded Oxfam, an international confederation of charitable organizations, to examine ways to resolve the problems faced by villagers affected by the construction of the dam, which is being built on two tributaries of the Mekong River.

The government’s response

Norng Sareth, an official from the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said the provincial Department of Agriculture has assisted villagers with farming, and that some of the land the government distributed to them is suitable for growing crops.

He also said the government would consider giving other plots of farmland to villagers who contend that their current plots are nonarable.

Of the more than 800 families affected by the dam, only 13 percent have refused to accept compensation from the government, he said.

But villagers say that more than 1,000 families in four communes in Sesan district have been affected by the building of the 75-meter (246-foot) wide, six-kilometer (3.7-mile) long dam whose reservoir covers about 34,000 hectares of land.

Tek Vannara, executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said the government should consider other options to appease the villagers who relocated but cannot make a living.

“An alternate and more acceptable option should be considered and discussed for the sake of the people affected,” he said. “There won’t be a better solution unless the issue is put on the table for a debate among all stakeholders.”

‘No better compensation’

Srey Sarum, an ethnic Laotian who lives in Sre Kor 1 village in the province’s Sre Kor 1 commune, said about 120 families in her village have refused to accept the government’s offer to move.

The main issue is that they do not want to move away from the sites where their ancestors are buried, she said.

“There is no better compensation than allowing us to live in our current village which we have called home for generations,” she said. “We cannot leave our farmland and the river on which our lives depend.”

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 along the Sesan River in northeastern Cambodia is being jointly developed by Cambodia’s Royal Group, Hydrolancang International Energy Co., and a subsidiary of Vietnam Electricity, and is expected to provide the government of Cambodia with around U.S. $30 million in tax revenue annually.

About 90 percent of the project, which began in February 2014, has been completed. When the Lower Sesan 2 dam becomes operational later this year, it will be Cambodia’s largest hydropower dam.

Villagers have campaigned against the dam, expressing concern about compensation for being displaced by the project, the destruction of protected forest areas and rivers they rely on for their livelihoods, and the disturbance of burial sites.

Reported by Savi Khorn for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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