Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen blasted a member of his cabinet on Friday for saying that cyanide run-off from Chinese-operated gold mines had caused the deaths of villagers recently poisoned by local water sources.
That explanation, offered to reporters last week by Minister of Industry and Handicraft Cham Prasidh, departed from the government line blaming the deaths on homemade wine and pesticides used by local farms.
The minister’s unauthorized comments had embarrassed his government, Hun Sen told Cham Prasidh.
“Why did you need to elaborate on this issue without my knowledge?” Hun Sen angrily asked.
“Your comments caused some controversy among your fellow ministers in other government departments, and this is because you spoke to the media before clearing your report with me.”
“I have removed ministers from the government before for doing this,” he said.
Speaking to reporters on May 17, Cham Prasidh said that toxic substances including chromium and cyanide used to flush gold mines had seeped into a river, killing more than a dozen people and sickening hundreds in northeastern Cambodia’s Kratie and Mondulkiri provinces.
Government officials had asserted earlier in May that some of the 18 deaths reported in Kratie province’s Cheth Borey district had been caused by the consumption of homemade wine with others caused by the presence of pesticides and herbicides in a local river.
Shortly after the Kratie deaths were reported, 80 indigenous ethnic Phnorng residents of four villages in Mondulkiri province fell ill after drinking contaminated water from a stream that had long been the source of drinking water in the area.
The contamination had been caused by a Chinese mining company that had been drilling upstream near the water source, one area resident told RFA in an earlier report.
Government ministers should be held responsible for the poisoning deaths, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, founder of the Cambodian environmental advocacy group Mother Nature but now living outside the country, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday.
“What happened was the result of those officials allowing the mining companies to operate freely,” Gonzalez-Davidson said, adding, “On top of that, corruption has been widespread across the ministries.”
“Those officials need to be punished so this kind of thing won’t happen again,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Richard Finney.