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Cambodia’s official Anti-Corruption Unit has demanded that the former spokesman for late King Norodom Sihanouk declare his assets or face legal action in a move he says is retribution for his decision to join the country’s opposition party ahead of upcoming national elections.
The investigative Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU), which critics have accused of being linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), sent the orders on Monday to Prince Sisowath Thomico, King Sihanouk’s nephew and longtime private secretary.
Prince Thomico has drawn criticism from Prime Minister Hun Sen since joining the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) last month. The CNRP is preparing to challenge Hun Sen’s ruling CPP in July 28 national elections.
In a letter obtained by RFA’s Khmer Service, Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) chief and senior minister Om Yentieng ordered Prince Thomico to turn over a list of his financial holdings within a week or face imprisonment.
“The ACU would like to warn Prince Thomico that if you refuse to declare your assets and debt within one week from the date of this letter, a lawsuit will be filed against you,” Om Yentieng, who is also advisor to Prime Minister Hun Sen, wrote in the letter.
“The unit would like to remind you that if you fail to properly respond as required by Article 38 of the Anti-Corruption Law, you will be punished with a term of imprisonment between one month and one year, a fine of at least 100,000 riel (U.S. $25), and you will still be forced to declare your assets.”
Prince Thomico would face double the penalty if he failed to produce a list of his assets a second time after receiving the letter, Om Yentieng wrote.
According to the letter, all members of Cambodia’s royal family and their staff were required to report their assets and 148 people had already complied. It said the ACU had already requested that the prince declare his holdings twice before Monday’s notification.
Prince Thomico told RFA’s Khmer Service that he believes the ACU is targeting him in an effort to destroy his political career.
He said that he had refused to comply with the ACU’s request because, as a member of the royal family, he was not subject to the laws of the Cambodian government.
“The ACU is simply a political tool,” he said.
“The monarchy is independent and does not fall under the purview of the government.”
Hun Sen last week lashed out at the prince, saying his decision to align himself with the opposition would destroy Cambodia’s monarchy.
Since 2011, declarations of assets must be made every two years by government and military officers starting at the levels of department chiefs and colonels.
Lawmakers are also required to make declarations along with commune, province, city, and district councilors as well as heads of civil society organizations. Around 23,000 officials are required to do so.
Earlier this year, Hun Sen declared his assets to the ACU and ordered government officials to do the same before a Jan. 31 deadline, noting that late declarations would be punished.
But opposition leaders and graft watchdogs have called on the ACU to allow public access to declaration documents in order to establish a system of checks and balances. They say that in Cambodian society, the wives and children of government officials often keep assets in their names.
The requirement that Cambodian officials declare their assets every two years came into effect as part of an anti-graft law introduced in March 2010, which also led to the creation of an anti-corruption council and the ACU to oversee investigations.
Critics have argued that the bodies are ineffective as they do not operate independently from the government and those overseeing them have poor track records.
Anti-graft organization Transparency International ranked Cambodia 157th worst out of 176 countries in its 2012 corruption perception index, released in December last year.
Before joining the CNRP, Prince Thomico served as a main adviser to his uncle, the beloved former King Sihanouk, who died at the age of 89 in October after suffering a heart attack at a hospital in Beijing.
Reported by Vohar Cheat for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Thousands of supporters of Cambodia’s main opposition party marched through the streets of Phnom Penh Monday calling for international pressure on the country’s government to postpone July national elections and reform its electoral procedures.
The demonstrators, led by Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) deputy president Kem Sokha, gathered at Freedom Park and marched to the European Union Delegation to Cambodia and United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR) to seek support for their demands.
The group wore white ribbons on their heads and carried with them petitions which also called for reforms recommended by the U.N. and nongovernmental organizations to the country’s electoral body, or National Election Commission (NEC).
“The CNRP, which represents the voters, would like the international community to push the NEC and the ruling party to respect recommendations raised by [U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia] Surya Subedi and other NGOs,” the petitions read.
The petitions called on the government to postpone elections until the NEC addresses allegations by The Committee for Fair and Free Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) and the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) of irregularities in voting lists.
The CNRP says as many as 1 million people are missing from the lists.
“The election must be delayed at least one or two months to correct those mistakes,” the petitions read.
They also asked for the international community to apply “pressure against the government to unconditionally allow [CNRP] leader [Sam Rainsy] to return to the country safely” to contest the July 28 elections.
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, facing a total of 11 years in prison over a string of convictions that critics contend are politically motivated. The NEC has said that he cannot stand in the coming elections because of his prison convictions.
The United States is among countries that have criticized the Cambodian authorities for disallowing Sam Rainsy from running in the elections, saying his case calls into question the vote’s legitimacy.
Military police, police officers, and anti-riot police were deployed near the demonstrators, who had not been given permission to march, but allowed them to proceed unhindered to the two offices, where Kem Sokha addressed the crowd.
“The ruling party must reform the NEC in order to hold a free and fair election,” Kem Sokha told the CNRP supporters, adding that support for greater transparency in the electoral process was “the strongest it’s ever been.”
Kem Sokha also invited Prime Minister Hun Sen to participate in public debates ahead of the July 28 polls, saying that the leader had “used his political position to attack the opposition” with impunity.
“I would like to leave a message to the prime minister: if you are brave enough, please come forward to join a debate,” he said.
A demonstrator named Srey Vy told RFA’s Khmer Service that she was not worried about her personal security and was excited to take part in the march.
“The last time we held a sit-in demonstration, but this time we decided we would march and we succeeded,” she said.
The demonstrators disbanded peacefully after delivering their petitions to the EU and OHCHR.
The rally marked the second mass protest by the CNRP in the capital in a push for electoral reforms.
Supporters staged a sit-in protest in late April, but a march planned as part of the demonstration was called off after the NEC agreed to study demands for changes in election procedures, which it later rejected.
Local rights groups have charged that the NEC is biased toward Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), but the NEC maintains that its nine members—who were approved by a CPP-dominated parliament last year—are independent and do not need to be changed.
Following Monday’s rally, Cambodian cabinet Spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the CNRP had breached its promise to authorities that demonstrators would not march.
He said Hun Sen was not obligated to respond to the demands of the opposition.
“Kem Sokha is not a judge—the voters are the judges,” he said.
“They will judge [Hun Sen’s] achievements as good or bad and that will be reflected in the July vote.”
Hun Sen recently reaffirmed that the government would not delay the election or audit voting lists under any circumstances.
According to law, he said, national elections must take place every five years in the fourth week of July.
Hun Sen, 61, has ruled the country for 28 years and earlier this month vowed to stay in power until he’s 74.
Reported by Van Vichar for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Religious freedom continued to decline in China this year, while Vietnam showed slight signs of improvement despite ongoing abuses, the U.S. State Department said in an annual report to American lawmakers.
Meanwhile, in Myanmar, also known as Burma, violations of religious freedoms continued unchanged in spite of progress made in political reforms, the report said.
In China, the State Department’s 2012 Religious Freedom Report said, “the government’s respect for religious freedom declined during the year, particularly in Tibetan areas and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Republic.”
In general, China’s government emphasized state control over religion, the report said, adding that the religious activities of religious adherents were restricted “when these were perceived, even potentially, to threaten state or Chinese Communist Party interests, including the Party’s concept of social stability.”
Protestants and Catholics practicing outside of state-controlled churches came in for particular scrutiny, said the report, as did members of the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement and smaller groups called “evil cults” by China’s government.
“Government repression, including crackdowns at monasteries and nunneries, resulted in the loss of life, arbitrary detentions, and torture,” said the report.
The U.S. Secretary of State has designated China as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) since 1999, with the designation most recently renewed in August 2011.
Countries of Particular Concern
Countries of Particular Concern are countries “that are considered to commit ‘particularly severe violations of religious freedom,’ and whose records call for the U.S. government to take certain actions under the terms of the [International Religious Freedom] Act,” said the report.
Burma, or Myanmar, also designated a CPC since 1999 with that status renewed in 2011, saw “considerable” movement in political reform during 2012, “but the trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year,” the State Department report said.
The report noted especially that local officials in the country’s Rakhine state took part in ethnic violence targeting Rakhine’s Muslim community last year.
Overall, Myanmar authorities “subjected religious activities and organizations to restrictions on freedom of expression, association, and assembly,” the report said, adding that the government promoted Theravada Buddhism over other religions, “particularly among certain ethnic minority populations.”
In Vietnam, though abuses of religious freedom—involving arrests, detentions, and convictions—were reported during the year, “the government also showed signs of progress,” said the report.
“It registered new congregations, permitted the expansion of charitable activities, and allowed large-scale worship services with more than 100,000 participants.”
“Other problems remained, [though], especially at the provincial and village levels, including slow or denied approval of registration for some groups. Some Christian groups also reported harassment or administrative obstacles when they tried to hold Christmas services,” the report said.
The State Department included Vietnam on its list of Countries of Particular Concern in 2004 but removed it from the blacklist two years later and has since ignored repeated calls by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) to reinstate the country’s designation.
“The Vietnamese government is still using vague national security laws to suppress independent Buddhists, Protestants, Hoa Hao, and Cao Dai activities,” USCIRF chair Katrina Lantos Swett told RFA in April.
“And they are definitely working to stop the growth of ethnic minority Protestantism and Catholicism through discrimination, instances of violence, and repeated episodes of forced renunciations of faith.”
“It’s still a very concerning situation, and one that we believe does merit CPC designation,” Swett said.
In Laos, “the trend in the government’s respect for religious freedom did not change significantly during the year,” the State Department’s report said.
“Officials respected the constitutional rights of members of most religious groups to worship, albeit within constraints imposed by the government.”
But local officials were sometimes lax in their enforcement of laws protecting religious freedom, said the report.
“District and local authorities in some of the country’s 17 provinces continued to be suspicious of non-Buddhist religious groups and occasionally displayed intolerance for minority religious groups.”
This was especially true in the case of Protestant congregations, “whether or not officially recognized,” the report said.
Meanwhile, in Cambodia, “there were few reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice,” though Buddhism is the country’s state religion, said the report.
“[Cambodia’s] constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom and, in practice, the government generally respected religious freedom.”
By contrast, the government of North Korea “severely restricted religious activity, except for some officially recognized groups it tightly supervised,” according to the State Department report.
“Reports by refugees, defectors, missionaries, and nongovernmental organizations (NGO) indicated that the authorities arrested and subjected to harsh penalties persons engaged in religious proselytizing and those in unauthorized contact with foreigners or missionaries.”
Reports of arrests and punishments during 2012 were difficult to verify, though, “[D]ue to the country’s inaccessibility and the inability of foreigners to gain timely information,” the report said.
Two ethnic Khmer monks have escaped into hiding after an attempt by Vietnamese government and religious authorities to strip them of their religious status following accusations of anti-state activity, sources said on Friday.
Thach Thuol and Lieu Ny—both of the Ta Set pagoda in the Vinh Chau district of Soc Trang province—evaded arrest on Thursday when hundreds of local Buddhists blocked police efforts to detain them, the two men told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.
“On May 16, at about 4:45 p.m., about 100 plainclothes police officers entered the pagoda to arrest me and monk Lieu Ny,” Thach Thuol said. “We both escaped arrest, but they came again at 11:00 p.m.”
Hundreds of local followers prevented police from entering the pagoda, and police broke locks and glass windows while trying to gain access, Thuol said.
The state-controlled Patriotic United Buddhist Association of Soc Trang province had announced two days before that they would force the monks to defrock, declaring in a statement by Buddhist leader Duong Nhon that the two men had used phones and the Internet to give interviews and transmit “fabricated information” about state policy toward Vietnam’s ethnic Khmer Krom minority.
“That decision [to defrock us] was not correct,” monk Lieu Ny said, speaking to RFA.
“Monks can be defrocked only when they have violated [one or more] of the Buddhist vows not to kill, steal, rape, or lie in order to harm others,” Ny said.
“Because we are citizens we have to respect the law. But this decision by Venerable Duong Nhon did not specifically state what rule we had broken.”
“I think this was a decision taken by the government of Vietnam,” Ny said, adding, “They did everything. They only put Duong Nhon’s name under it and forced him to sign.”
Meanwhile, a third Khmer monk, Ly Chanh Da of Vinh Chau’s Prey Chop temple, was defrocked by local police on May 16 and thrown unconscious into the street, the Khmers Kampuchea-Krom Federation said in a statement Friday.
“He is staying at [a] villager’s house now,” the Federation said. “He is in a very bad health condition. Sometimes he cannot even remember his own name.”
“The Patriotic United Buddhist Association had ordered Ly Chanh Da to defrock, but Ly Chanh Da did not listen,” Hua Si Hung, acting vice chair of the Vinh Chau People’s Committee, told RFA.
“The Association then asked relevant authorities from the village to force Ly Chanh Da to defrock,” he said.
Reached for comment, Duong Sa Kha, head of the Ethnic People’s Office of Soc Trang province, described the case as “an internal affair of the Patriotic United Buddhist Association.”
“If you want to know more, you can come here to talk … The Association did not ask the police to do anything,” he said.
A U.S. bipartisan commission recommended in April that Vietnam be returned to a State Department list of the world’s worst violators of religious freedom.
Vietnam, under one-party communist rule, “continues to expand control over all religious activities [and] severely restricts independent religious practice, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedoms (USCIRF) said in an annual report.
Though religious activity has grown in Vietnam in recent years, the government continues to “repress individuals and religious groups it views as challenging its authority,” USCIRF said.
Reported by Quoc Viet for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.
A building at a factory complex in Cambodia contracted by Japanese footwear retailer Asics collapsed Thursday killing at least three workers and injuring ten, according to officials who vowed to investigate working conditions in the country’s garment plants.
Employees were working underneath a concrete-reinforced storeroom used to house equipment when the ceiling gave way at the Taiwan-owned Wing Star Shoes factory in Kompong Speu province, Minister of Social Affairs Ith Samheng told reporters.
“Three workers were killed and ten injured in the collapse,” the minister said, adding that the ceiling which crushed the employees included a section of concrete measuring around nine meters (30 feet) wide and 14 meters (46 feet) in length.
“Two were killed instantly and another died at a nearby hospital. The injured are being treated for their wounds,” he said.
Two of those killed at the scene included a male and female worker, both aged 22, though their names were not immediately available.
Workers at the scene of the accident said the building had collapsed just 10 minutes after workers began their morning shift at 7 a.m. They said at least 20 of the building’s 200 workers were working underneath the concrete ledge when it gave way.
A worker named Kuy Sokleap who witnessed the accident said employees had heard what sounded like crumbling foundations before the ceiling fell in, but were not told to vacate the premises by factory management.
“The workers had just begun their shifts. I heard a cracking sound, but the factory didn't sound any emergency alarm,” she said.
“Some workers ran outside, but others continued to work and then the building’s ceiling fell down.”
Rescuers assisted by soldiers sorted through debris for hours in the aftermath of the disaster, freeing those trapped in the rubble before announcing that the search operation had ended later that afternoon.
Ith Samheng said that the accident occurred due to poor-quality construction of the Taiwan-owned factory building, located in Angsokun village about 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of the capital Phnom Penh.
“The building didn't comply with construction standards," Ith Sam Heng said, adding that unstable layers built on top of the existing factory structure were unable to support the weight of stored equipment.
Ith Samheng said the Wing Star factory owners, who employ more than 7,000 workers, would be “held responsible according to law” for the accident, adding that the tragedy marked the first time “in recent history” that a factory had collapsed in Cambodia.
Agence France-Presse quoted Ith Samheng as saying that authorities would “investigate the incident and take measures against those involved.” He said the government would “examine all factories to prevent this kind of incident from happening again.”
But Wing Star’s chief administration director Mao Chhivsong told RFA’s Khmer Service that construction at the factory had been licensed and that the collapse was “an accident.”
“I don't know much about the building—only that there was an inspection,” he said.
Mao Chhivsong said Wing Star didn't have a plan in place to compensate the victims.
Officials have promised that the government would pay restitution to the families of the victims and assist those who were injured in the catastrophe with their medical bills through state social funds.
AFP quoted Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, as welcoming the government’s plan to inspect garment plants across the country.
“I applaud any measures to investigate the buildings of all factories to ensure safety for workers, but officials have to do it thoroughly and not accept bribes,” he said.
“Garment factories in Cambodia do not meet international safety standards because the quality of the buildings [is] not ensured and people have been working with a high risk of danger.”
Reuters quoted a spokeswoman for Asics Corp. as confirming that the factory makes running shoes for the company.
“Our prayers go out to the families of those who have died,” she said.
The Wing Star factory has remained closed since the accident.
Around a half million people work in Cambodia’s garment industry, which earns some U.S. $4.6 billion a year producing goods for Western clothing firms.
The garment industry is Cambodia’s third-largest currency earner, but workers often work long shifts for little pay, trade unions complain.
In March the Cambodian government announced a higher minimum wage of U.S. $80 per month from U.S. $61 for garment and footwear workers, but unions had originally demanded U.S. $120.
Reported by Sek Bandit for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is set to submit a corrected list of its candidates in the upcoming July 28 general election on Wednesday, and the new list will omit exiled politician Sam Rainsy’s name just like the old version, party officials said.
But despite having dropped him as a candidate, the party will continue to pursue reforms allowing Sam Rainsy—who faces imprisonment if he returns to Cambodia on charges he contends are politically motivated—to contest the polls, with plans to stage a demonstration in Phnom Penh next week.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party has already prepared the corrected candidate registration list, after the old one had small errors in facts about the candidates.
"We already completed the corrections and we will send it back tomorrow," he told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday, adding that Sam Rainsy’s name would remain off of the new registration list.
After the newly formed party submitted its list on Friday, the National Election Committee’s (NEC) Secretary General Tep Nytha said Monday that the CNRP had been asked to correct some mistakes and return the documents within five days, but did not elaborate on what the errors were.
The CNRP is keeping Sam Rainsy as its party head and, under Cambodia’s electoral system, if it wins the election, could still submit him as its pick for prime minister when forming the new cabinet.
The party could also seek a royal pardon that would make him eligible to take office.
‘Free and fair’ vote
Sam Rainsy, who the NEC said in November was barred from the vote because of his criminal convictions, has argued that the elections will not be “free and fair” if he is not allowed to run.
The CNRP will lead a demonstration next week in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to demand the government allow him to contest the vote and that the NEC accept recommendations from NGOs and the United Nations’ special envoy on human rights to reform.
"We demand the return of Mr. Sam Rainsy of the Cambodia National Rescue Party before Election Day safely and without any conditions," a statement by the party on Tuesday said.
Yim Sovann said the party expects to lead about 6,000 demonstrators from across the country in the protest, adding that the NEC failed to respond to requests for reforms during the last demonstration in April.
The protesters will also call on the NEC to correct irregularities on its list of voters found by local election monitors Comfrel and the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute.
"We will continue to fight through massive citizen protests and rally international pressure against the government," Yim Sovann said.
A total of eight political parties submitted their candidate registration lists to compete in the election before the application period ended on Monday, according to the NEC.
Five of them, including Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the Funcinpec royalist party, have had their candidate lists approved.
Aside from the CNRP, two small parties—the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party and the Khmer Economic Development Party—have also been asked to submit corrections to their lists.
Reported and translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Cambodia’s electoral body is scrutinizing a bid by the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party to contest the July general election, saying approval has been given to five of eight parties to field candidates in the polls.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), headed by exiled leader Sam Rainsy, submitted its registration to the National Election Committee (NEC) on Friday without his name listed as a candidate, officials said.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha told RFA’s Khmer Service Monday that the CNRP’s registration papers are being examined.
The NEC, which organizes and manages all elections in the country, said in a statement on its website that it had “rectified a few errors in the CNRP’s registration" but did not provide details.
The election body has required the CNRP to provide more information on the registration within five days, according to Cambodia’s key ally China’s state news agency Xinhua.
CNRP officials said they had left Sam Rainsy off of the list of candidates because the NEC had barred him from running and deleted his name from voter lists on the basis of his prison convictions.
But Sam Rainsy—who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid prison for a string of convictions that critics contend are politically motivated—will be nominated as prime minister if the party wins the election, they said.
They did not explain how he could take up the post if he is not on the ballot.
Eight parties in the race
Among the five political parties that won approval to run in the July 28 polls are Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the royalist Funcinpec Party.
The CPP and Funcinpec, which submitted their candidate lists earlier this month, received approval alongside three smaller parties. Another two lesser known parties are awaiting approval alongside the CNRP.
Sam Rainsy, 63, who has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, faces a total of 11 years in prison if he returns to Cambodia.
Since the NEC said in November he could not stand in the elections because of the prison convictions, Sam Rainsy has called Hun Sen a “coward” for barring him from the polls and argued that the elections will not be “free and fair” if he is not allowed to run.
Hun Sen, 61, has ruled the country for 28 years and vowed last week to stay in power until he’s 74.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Backed by powerful banks, Vietnamese rubber companies are rapidly expanding their operations in Cambodia and Laos by grabbing land from villagers and disregarding the environment, according to an extensive probe report.
The UK-based development watchdog Global Witness said in the report that Cambodian and Lao officials often look the other way as companies in Vietnam’s rubber industry seize land from local communities without adequate compensation and carry out illegal logging operations both inside and beyond their concession boundaries.
Vietnam’s two largest companies—privately-owned Hoang Anh Gia Lai (HAGL) and state-owned Vietnam Rubber Group (VRG)—have leased huge tracts of land for plantations in the two countries “with disastrous consequences for local communities and the environment,” the report said.
“The huge pressure for land to plant rubber is driven by high prices and soaring international demand, especially from China,” it said.
The Vietnamese companies are backed by top German lender Deutsche Bank and World Bank subsidiary the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and Global Witness called on them to divest their stakes in the companies if they do not adhere to the banks’ legal, environmental, and social requirements.
“As the third-largest producer of rubber globally, Vietnam is a key global player … [but] with limits on the land available at home, both companies have turned to neighboring Cambodia and Laos [for production],” it said.
Megan MacInnes, head of the Land Team at Global Witness and the report’s author, told RFA’s Lao Service that the impact of large-scale rubber plantations has been “devastating” to local communities and to the environment in Cambodia and southern Laos.
“There are major problems in terms of deforestation and illegal logging and forest clearance and destruction of forest resources,” she said.
“But the local communities we spoke to also told us about the fact that these plantations are destroying their access to local water sources—to streams and to rivers—and they also talked about pollution from the chemicals that the companies are using on the plantations.”
The Cambodian authorities criticized the Global Witness report, saying the group has a “political” agenda” against the government. Lao officials did not immediately react to the report.
MacInnes said the villagers her team interviewed for the report are in a “desperate situation” and that many have lost access to their farmlands—leaving them unable to grow rice and vegetables—as well as to forest resources such as medicines and fruits that are important to their household incomes.
“Almost all of the people that we spoke to told us that the impact on their livelihoods by these rubber plantations had been negative—had really impacted their livelihoods very badly,” she said.
By the end of 2012, the report said, 2.6 million hectares (6.4 million acres) of land in Cambodia had been leased, with 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) allocated for rubber plantations, while in Laos, at least 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of land had been leased to concessionaires.
It termed the granting of concessions to HAGL and VRG in both countries “a process marked by lack of consultation and forced evictions.”
“Often, the first people know about either company being given their land is when the bulldozers arrive,” the report said.
“When they resist, communities face violence, arrest and detention.”
Flouting local laws
Global Witness said that rubber plantations, particularly in Cambodia, had been supported by corrupt political and business leaders, while dealings in both countries were “cloaked in secrecy.”
“Both HAGL and VRG have very close connections with high-level government and business elites in Cambodia, so they are clearly very well-connected to the government,” MacInnes said.
Global Witness said that government officials in both Cambodia and Laos have licensed concessions “in contravention of their own laws” and have failed to take action when HAGL and VRG ignored those laws.
MacInnes told RFA that her team often found that rubber companies had offered little or no compensation to families affected by concessions, which is required under both Cambodian and Lao laws.
“In some villages there had been compensation offered, but often it was very low—much, much lower than the market value or much lower than the households thought the land or the forest areas were worth,” she said.
“In other places, villagers told us that the companies promised compensation, but nothing was ever paid.”
The report said that the companies were responsible for the illegal clearance of intact forest—including protected species—both within and beyond their concession boundaries.
MacInnes said that the companies denied being involved in illegal activities when contacted by Global Witness, claiming their operations were sanctioned by the government through the granting of concessions.
“We think it’s very, very important that these companies bring their operations in line with the law, and we think that it’s incredibly important also that the Lao and Cambodian governments investigate and prosecute these companies for illegal actions and illegal operations around their concessions,” she said.
Global Witness called on the governments of Cambodia and Laos to suspend all HAGL- and VRG-related operations, fully investigate them, and initiate prosecution where illegal activities are found. It also recommended that a number of concessions made to other rubber companies should be canceled.
“This report doesn't aim to help Cambodia,” said Cambodian cabinet Spokesman Phay Siphan. “This is not a partner who is helping to prevent forest crimes.”
“The report has a political agenda in attacking the government,” he said, adding that the Cambodian authorities provided concessions not only to Vietnamese companies but also to local small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Phay Siphan called on Global Witness to “file a lawsuit if they have evidence” to support their claims.
He said the government’s policy of granting land concessions aimed to encourage practitioners of traditional agriculture to form small- and medium-sized enterprises to improve their yield and profits.
“This is part of an effort to modernize our agriculture sector,” he said.
“We are not only giving concessions to Vietnamese companies. We are giving concessions to any companies that can demonstrate financial and technical expertise.”
But Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the opposition National Rescue Party (NRP), accused the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of “serving the interests of foreign countries,” saying that the granting of excessive land concessions to Vietnamese companies was causing the country to lose money.
“We would benefit more from preserving the forest and allowing our farmers to cultivate their land,” he said.
“Under the current model we enjoy a small amount of benefits at the cost of massive forest destruction.”
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service and RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy says his party is in negotiations with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party for his return to contest upcoming national elections, expressing optimism that a “political solution” would be reached.
“There are ongoing negotiations because this is not only a Cambodian issue—the world is watching,” the president of the opposition National Rescue Party (NRP) told RFA’s Khmer Service in Washington.
“[The world] wants our country to become a true democracy holding fair elections,” he said, without elaborating on when the talks with the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) began or the basis for his optimism.
Sam Rainsy said he “believe[s] there will be a political solution” that will allow him to return to Cambodia.
“This is not the first time for me. There have been … other times [I was persecuted],” he said, “But in the end there have always been political solutions.”
Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, is barred by the Cambodian authorities from contesting the July 28 elections due to convictions that he says were politically motivated and for which he faces a total of 11 years in prison.
“Without my participation as an opposition leader who can defeat the ruling party, the election is meaningless and worthless,” he said.
“The government understands this issue and they have heard the demands of the international community.”
The United States is among countries that have criticized the Cambodian authorities for disallowing Sam Rainsy from running in the elections based on his criminal convictions, saying this calls into question the vote’s legitimacy.
Sam Rainsy said he is “100 percent confident” that he will be invited back to Cambodia to participate in the polls, adding that his presence is critical for a “free and fair election.”
“If there is a free and fair election it must include Sam Rainsy,” he said.
“But if it is a sham there is no need for me.”
Sam Rainsy told Agence France-Presse on Thursday that Washington should impose sanctions against Hun Sen if the elections are unfair, citing Burma’s recent change from a military regime to a growing democracy as a result of foreign pressure.
Call to postpone polls
Sam Rainsy said that in order for Cambodia to have a free and fair election, the polls must be postponed by at least three months, indicating that the delay would enable electoral reforms to be implemented.
The opposition leader earlier this week told a roundtable in Washington that polls should be postponed due to what he said are inconsistencies in voter registration and the barring of the opposition from observing the ballot process.
Hun Sen recently reaffirmed that the government would not delay the election or audit voting lists under any circumstances.
According to law, he said, national elections must take place every five years in the fourth week of July.
Sam Rainsy said recent attacks by Hun Sen against his party—including a call on the Cambodian media to air recordings of Sam Rainsy and deputy NRP chief Kem Sokha expressing their political differences in public—indicate that the CPP is concerned about the popularity of the opposition.
The two opposition leaders had aired their differences long before they decided to jointly form the NRP.
Hun Sen also suggested earlier this week that the NRP’s delay in submitting a list of candidates for the polls to the National Election Committee (NEC), which organizes and manages all elections in the country, was related to a split within the party.
“These claims are nonsense. What is important is that the party's leaders and its millions of supporters are united to rescue the country from disaster,” he said.
Reported by Vuthy Huot for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Cambodia’s opposition National Rescue Party (NRP) has dismissed suggestions by Prime Minister Hun Sen that its delay in submitting a list of candidates for upcoming national elections underscores a split within the party.
Kem Sokha, the NRP’s deputy president, said the party was holding back the candidates’ list in anticipation of election reforms urgently needed to ensure that the July 28 polls are free and fair.
He said Hun Sen’s aides may have given the prime minister inaccurate information for him to make assumptions about a rift within the NRP.
Contrary to Hun Sen’s claims, he said, there is no internal dissent within his group and that it is “well-prepared” with the list of candidates.
“Someone cheated [Hun Sen] because this is a false report,” Kem Sokha told RFA’s Khmer Service, mocking the prime minister for accepting “incorrect information from his informants.”
“We don't have any internal conflict,” he said.
The NRP is led by exiled chief Sam Rainsy, who has been barred by the Cambodian authorities from contesting the elections due to past convictions which he says were politically motivated.
Kem Sokha may have to lead the NRP against Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the elections if Sam Rainsy fails in his campaign to return to contest the polls.
Kem Sokha said the party had “reshuffled some candidates to make sure they are ready to compete with CPP officials,” without elaborating.
He said the NRP was prepared to submit its candidate list even by this weekend to the National Election Committee (NEC), which organizes and manages all elections in the country, if it agrees to adopt and implement poll reforms proposed by various groups.
The NRP had been holding off also with the hope that the NEC would accept calls from Cambodia’s opposition for more transparency and to allow Sam Rainsy to participate in the election, he said.
The demands echo recommendations to Prime Minister Hun Sen made earlier this year by U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi, who has been accused by the government of siding with the country’s political opposition and civil society.
The NEC maintains that it has acted in accordance with electoral laws and will not take any recommendations into consideration.
Earlier this week in Washington, Sam Rainsy asked Cambodian authorities to postpone the national elections, citing inconsistencies in voter registration and barring of the opposition from observing the ballot process.
Sam Rainsy has been living in self-imposed exile in France since 2009, facing a total of 11 years in prison over a string of convictions that critics contend are politically motivated.
Claims of division
Hun Sen earlier this week suggested that the NRP had been slow in submitting its candidate list due to an internal conflict.
He said its persistent calls for election reforms were a ploy to cover up its internal divisions.
“They said they haven’t submitted their candidate list because they’re waiting for the NEC to reform,” Hun Sen said.
“Please don't lie. [The NRP] simply can't agree on candidate lists,” he said, adding that the party was having “problems” with candidates in “certain provinces.”
Hun Sen reaffirmed that the government would not delay the election or audit voting lists under any circumstances.
According to law, he said, national elections must take place every five years in the fourth week of July.
As of Thursday, five political parties had registered with the NEC to compete in the polls. The NEC has recognized and approved three of them, including the CPP.
Local rights groups have charged that the NEC is biased toward the CPP, and election watchdogs say voters are intimidated into supporting the ruling party through restrictions on freedom of expression, rights abuses, and land disputes.
Last week, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) and several human rights groups demanded that the NEC post a list of voters for upcoming crucial elections in all villages and involve key political parties in the supervision of the polling process.
They expressed concern over the lack of transparency in preparations for the polls along with what they felt was weak management in the selection of ground election supervisors and the "poor quality" of the voters list.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.