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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Dredging for answers

Workers maintain a barge loaded with sand dredged from the Tatai River earlier this year in Koh Kong province.
Workers maintain a barge loaded with sand dredged from the Tatai River earlier this year in Koh Kong province. Athena Zelandonii

Dredging for answers

An official at the Ministry of Mines and Energy yesterday acknowledged that smuggling and illegal mining, as well as corruption or tax fraud, may have contributed to hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of discrepancies in data on sand exports to Singapore.

On October 28, the ministry also temporarily halted the export of sand by companies that hold export licences in coastal areas in order to re-evaluate the companies, according to documents obtained by the Post this week and confirmed by several officials. Officials also have temporarily suspended the granting or renewing of licences for sand export, documents show.

The controversy concerns UN data showing $752 million in imports of sand from Cambodia to Singapore since 2007, despite the Kingdom only reporting about $5 million in exports to the small island nation. Singapore’s Trade Ministry statistics closely mirror the UN’s data.

The ministry yesterday officially responded to a group of 47 civil society organisations that on Tuesday had sent a letter to the ministry demanding answers on the discrepancies. In its response, the ministry said that “the responsible management of the sand business still faces some problems”, but that it is “re-examining [the matter] with care”.

“The Ministry of Mines and Energy will take serious actions if it found any irregularities in sand exports,” the ministry’s letter continues. “The ministry . . . wants to emphasise that the ministry has the duty to allow the export of sand with clear procedures and standards and to collect royalties from the export based on the amount exported. And the selling of the sand is not the role of the ministry; it is the business of those who hold licences and the buyers.”

The letter notes that discrepancies may be the result of differences in reporting regimes, but could also be the result of “many factors”.

Yesterday, ministry spokesman Meng Saktheara said those factors may include smuggling and illegal mining, as well as corruption or collusion in misrepresenting export figures for tax avoidance purposes.

“All the above three factors could be plausible,” he said. “The ministry is taking these two last possibilities very seriously.”

Saktheara pointed out that sand export bans by Malaysia and Indonesia in 2007, and Vietnam’s suspension of sand dredging in 2009, caused sand prices in Singapore to spike.

“This price soar has created sand smuggling in the region and wide-spread of sand illegal mining in Cambodia in 2007-2010,” he said, via email. Dith Tina, secretary of state for the ministry, declined to comment yesterday.

Vann Sophath, of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, which was among the organisations to demand answers from the ministry, said he hadn’t seen the response, but if smuggling and illegal mining were possible contributing factors leading to the massive discrepancies, it would be a loss for everyone.

“The government would have allowed corrupt people to get money instead of the country,” he said. “I don’t think the government should allow this kind of corruption.”

However, he added, “in Cambodia, powerful men influence everything”. The government should act, starting now, in order to halt whatever is behind the discrepancies, he said.

“Otherwise, it will continue and things won’t improve,” he said. “Who will lose? The government and the state.”

Official documents obtained by the Post show that the ministry has begun taking some action.

According to a November 1 letter from Mines Minister Suy Sem to the general director of customs, the ministry indicated it was temporarily suspending the exports of sand of companies that hold a licence for export in all coastal areas.

The suspension was to “re-evaluate all these companies” and decide “which companies are allowed to continue business and which companies must be terminated”.

In an October 28 letter, the ministry said that “to effectively reinforce the managing mechanism and collect income from the exporting of sand resources and reduce some effects, the ministry decided to temporarily suspending the granting or renewing [of] licence and exporting sand” by licensed companies.

Additional reporting by Phak Seangly

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