A Cambodian rights group has alleged that a logging tycoon close to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and the ruling party has been granted state land concessions that are nearly seven times above the limit under the law.
In a 50-page report, local nongovernmental organization Cambodia Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) also accused timber magnate Try Pheap of blatantly flouting conditions under which he was granted the economic land concessions (ELC).
It also charged that Try Pheap had channeled around U.S. $1 million to Hun Sen’s family and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for unspecified expenditures before the July 28 elections, whose results remain disputed despite official returns declaring the CPP as the victor.
In response to the allegations, a senior CPP official told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that the government would investigate the matter, saying the authorities would never allow companies to operate ELCs illegally.
In Wednesday’s report, CHRTF claimed that Try Pheap had amassed nearly 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of ELCs, or seven times more than the 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) allowed to a single individual, through as many as 15 companies operating under his name or that of his wife, Mao Mom.
According to Article 59 of Cambodia’s Land Law, individuals or legal entities controlled by the same person cannot hold more than 10,000 hectares of ELCs, even if they are spread over multiple concessions.
That law allows the government to make use of all “private state land” and lease them to companies for as many as 99 years.
Nearly 1,500 families have been evicted from their homes since 2010 as a result of Try Pheap’s acquisitions, which have also encroached on protected forests, wildlife sanctuaries, and as many as 20 national parks, the report said.
“We have conducted studies on Try Pheap’s companies and we found that they breached their contracts with the government [according to what is required under] land concession licenses,” Ouch Leng, director of CHRTF, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“The companies have mainly cut down the forests, but they have left the land undeveloped” without facing punishment, he said.
Ouch Leng said that Try Pheap and his family had paid around U.S. $1 million to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and the CPP.
“Before the election, they spent more than U.S. $1 million,” Ouch Leng said, claiming that he had been told about the payment by members of Try Pheap’s family.
“[Try Pheap’s] family members can’t enjoy a rich lifestyle because they spent so much money on the ruling party and Hun Sen’s family,” he said, without providing details about how the money was channeled or what it was used for.
CHRTF said it had sent a team of investigators to compile information on Try Pheap’s companies and to track company officials as they transported the timber into Vietnam for resale to third countries.
Try Pheap has exclusive rights to collect and buy luxury timber, mainly rosewood, from government-granted land concessions in 15 provinces, the CHRTF report said, and his companies also clear timber from concession areas in nine other provinces.
“Through our investigation, we found that [the main entity] Try Pheap Import Export is the biggest operation [in Cambodia] extracting luxury wood and exporting it to foreign countries through Vietnam,” the report said.
“The company pays only minimal attention to [developing the] agricultural industry, such as through the planting of rubber and pepper [as required under the concessions]. It received land concessions and only cuts down the forests—it doesn’t develop the concession areas.”
The Phnom Penh Post cited Ouch Leng as saying that the company has also “fed and sponsored armed forces and civil servants in the concession area[s] by helping build offices, but it does not help improve people’s lives.”
Try Pheap’s 14 other companies are largely involved with logging and the exporting of wood, though the tycoon also controls some mining interests as well, the report said.
His “close ties” with the government have allowed Try Pheap Import Export to open 27 offices in 12 provinces, it said, adding that CHRTF is in possession of documents from the environment and commerce ministries that detail the company’s concessions.
It claims Try Pheap is closely connected with officials from the ministries of interior and agriculture, the military, forestry officials, and other concessionaires.
CHRTF said in a statement that it had released the report focusing only on Try Pheap’s companies “to urge the government to take action and show the truth behind why our forests are disappearing.”
Response to claims
Try Pheap could not be reached by RFA on Thursday for comment on the allegations.
But the Post reported that a company representative in Preah Vihear province denied allegations of illegal activity.
“Our company does not log illegally,” said the representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Try Pheap’s companies had rights to buy timber in only eight provinces.
“We buy wood that has been seized by the authorities … The money goes to the state. We do not export it. We process it in Phnom Penh as furniture.”
He called allegations about the companies’ practices false, and said that villagers were given adequate compensation when they were relocated.
When asked by RFA about claims of concession violations by Try Pheap’s companies and allegations about money funneled by the tycoon to the CPP and Hun Sen, senior CPP official and National Assembly—or parliament—spokesman Chheang Vun called nonsanctioned deforestation “a crime.”
“But any deforestation that is done with the permission of the government following detailed studies is legal,” he said.
Hun Sen’s government would never allow anyone to conduct logging without prior approval, Chheang Vun said, adding that the prime minister “has already made it clear that anyone who is caught illegally logging will be prosecuted.”
He criticized CHRTF for issuing a report without having consulted the government.
“NGOs should [first] file complaints with the government,” Chheang Vun said, as well as with Cambodia’s anti-corruption task force and the National Assembly, calling for a probe into the claims.
He pledged to investigate the allegations, saying “leading lawmakers in the areas raised by the NGO will hold discussions with permanent commissions to see which steps to pursue.”
Try Pheap’s activities have been the focus of several reports this year, including one in August by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which said it had evidence of rampant illegal logging in Preah Vihear.
Another investigation in October by National Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organization concluded that licenses granted to the tycoon for extracting and buying timber from ELCs will leave the areas ecologically impoverished.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.