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The ‘King of Koh Kong’ speaks out

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Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat speaks to The Post on Tuesday in Phnom Penh.

Cambodian People’s Party senator Ly Yong Phat is the owner of Phnom Penh Palm Sugar and Kampong Speu Palm Sugar companies and has received controversial government land concessions spanning more than 18,000 hectares in Kampong Speu province. Recently, he came under fire for his firm’s sand dredging operations in Koh Kong province. Earlier this week, WikiLeaks released a 2007 US Embassy cable which described him as “The King of Koh Kong” for his prominence in the province. Post reporter May Titthara spoke to Ly Yong Phat on Tuesday about his developments.

Why do you want to develop sugar cane plantations in Kampong Speu province?
I want to help the villagers living in Oral and Thpong districts because nowadays they don’t have jobs besides hunting wild animals and cutting forest to produce charcoal. I am very pleased to make a small contribution to develop the area to help the villagers have jobs. In the near future, I will have technicians to train them to grow sugar cane and to collect those products to sell to us. It is favourable for the villagers who nowadays work because they don’t have any techniques in cultivating sugar cane. Over two or three years, they can grow [sugar cane] on their land so that they will not be worried that they have no jobs.

What is your response to villagers who have rallied and blocked national roads in protest against your company’s sugar cane plantation in Kampong Speu province’s Thpong district?
Some political parties are behind the demonstrations and road blocks held by villagers. We all are Khmer: what is the use of harassing each other? What the villagers did was backed by someone. If no one was behind it, the villagers could not do it.

The company received the land through an economic land concession from the government, but because the Ministry [of Land Management, Urban Planning, and Construction] does not pay much attention, the villagers grabbed the land. The land does not belong to the company, it is the state’s land. When the company received the concession, it had to use it and doing this can affect the villagers. Provincial
and district committees went directly to see how the concession affected villagers and settled it.

It is not true that the company grabbed the villagers’ land because the company rented the state’s land. When some villagers point fingers ... the company settles this with cash in order to ease difficulties for the villagers and the state.

Some NGOs and opposition parties have called on the European Union to cease trade preferences for Cambodian companies exporting sugar to Europe over allegations that some companies, including yours, are involved in rights abuses such as land grabbing. What do you think about such statements?

I am very disappointed because what Mu Sochua – a [Sam Rainsy Party] lawmaker from Kampot province – said is contrary to my objective.
I come to invest. I give jobs to the villagers. According to her, it is “blood sugar”. I don’t know what she meant.

As a lawmaker representing people, she should help the people find jobs in their villages. She should not urge the European Union not to buy sugar from us, whether her action brings advantages to society or not. I don’t say that it provides advantages to society: she does.

What effect does it have when political parties push the EU to refuse to buy sugar from your company? What are the main markets that your company focuses on?
If we are talking about white sugar, my current objective is to focus on supplying local markets because Cambodia is yet to have a white sugar factory.

White sugar is imported from foreign countries so I have an idea to build a factory in the country to meet the country’s demand for white sugar. We should not import sugar from overseas: what we can do, we should do. I can sell white sugar locally and I can export it to neighbouring countries, but I cannot say that I will not export to Europe because I am a businessman. If they buy our sugar at a proper price, I can sell it.

Right now, we are afraid that we do not have enough sugar to support our local market because annually the local market needs about 300,000 to 400,000 tonnes and we only have the ability to produce 100,000 tonnes.

How do you respond to complaints from local residents that your company’s sand dredging operations in Koh Kong province have adversely affected the environment?
It is by chance that I started to dredge sand in [Koh Kong] province, because Singapore needed to buy sand, and as we know Tatai, Ta Paingrong and Sre Ambil rivers flood every year. One year, they flooded about three or four times which affected villagers’ crops and homes. When the rivers flooded people could not travel from Phnom Penh to Koh Kong.

When we heard the news that Singapore wanted to buy sand, we took the opportunity to ask the government if we could drain the sand out of the river to make it deeper. The government approved after their officers come to conduct research. In fact, my idea was just to drain the sand out of the river to make it deeper, not to sell sand.

If villagers have a problem, they should write a letter to my company. We have found a resolution for villagers who were affected by dredging already.

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