MILITARY police on Monday gathered on land claimed by residents of Kampong Speu province’s Thpong district who fear they will be evicted to make way for a sugar plantation owned by Cambodian People’s Party Senator Ly Yong Phat, witnesses said, fuelling speculation that the land would be forcibly cleared.
Meanwhile, the senator, who owns sugar plantations in Koh Kong and Oddar Meanchey provinces that were developed following evictions, confirmed he would participate in a newly announced partnership between businesses and the Cambodian military that some observers say could see soldiers used to further the aims of the private sector.
Representatives of Phnom Penh Sugar, the Ly Yong Phat-owned company that was granted a 9,000-hectare concession that includes the disputed land in Thpong district, arrived in the disputed area on Monday in the company of 10 provincial military police officers, said Vong Yuon, one of the villagers who lives there. He added that the party left without incident.
Doc Ren, a representative of the villagers, said the presence of the military police was likely designed to threaten them.
“They took the military police to threaten us ... but we did not allow them to take over our farmland, because our farmland is our food pot,” Doc Ren said.
Villagers had earlier camped out with food and water on the rice fields, digging in to prevent company representatives from appropriating the land.
“We brought food and water to the fields because we were afraid that if we left to go home for lunch, they would seize our land,” Vong Yuon said.
After an initial protest by the villagers on Saturday, a Sunday meeting with company representatives did not yield a solution, Doc Ren added, as maps clearly demarcating the land concession were not available.
Kampong Speu provincial Governor Kang Heang on Monday again dismissed fears that the land concession would affect the villagers.
“The company gets the right to develop 9,000 hectares in this area, but I promise that the company’s development project will not affect the villagers’ farmland because we marked off the villagers’ land on our map,” he said.
Ly Yong Phat said his company did not want to harm the community and was working to resolve the situation.
“We have to hold discussions between villagers and the company to find a peaceful solution, and to see whether, if their land is affected, they want to sell the land or move to another place,” he said.
Partnerships stoke concerns
Last week, Prime Minister Hun Sen announced a new programme in which businesses will partner with units of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) to provide charitable support. Ly Yong Phat said Monday that his Ly Yong Phat Company would be involved in the partnership.
“For our support, we will address some of the soldiers’ recent needs,” Ly Yong Phat said. “Our soldiers lack rooms and offices, so we will construct those facilities for them.”
In October, more than 100 families were driven off their land in Oddar Meanchey’s Bos village, Kounkriel commune, to make way for a plantation operated by Ly Yong Phat’s Angkor Sugar Company. Officials from the Forestry Administration and troops from RCAF Battalion 42 abetted the destruction of homes at the site, according to local rights group Licadho.
Such examples of the military serving private interests, though prevalent in recent years, may be “officialised” by the new initiative, said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho.
“It has always been done in the past decade, but this is a little bit different because it’s official,” she said. “It does set a very dangerous precedent.”
Nick Owen, a Cambodia specialist at the Economist Intelligence Unit, noted that even if the programme is ostensibly voluntary, companies may feel compelled to participate, fearing unfavourable treatment by the government if they do not. The companies, in turn, may feel entitled to enlist military forces to pursue their own projects.
“There may be a feeling on the part of those companies that if they’re donating to the military, they may expect services in return,” Owen said.
Tan Monivan, deputy director general of the Mong Reththy Group, rejected the notion that the partnerships could lead to improprieties on the part of either private firms or the military. The Mong Reththy Group has been paired with the RCAF’s Messenger Unit and Military Unit 827, and Tan Monivan said these organisations will operate within the Kingdom’s laws.
“There is no harm in helping the military – we will assist them according to our ability,” he said. Discussions between the RCAF and the Mong Reththy Group regarding areas of specific need have not yet been held, Tan Monivan added.
Chhum Socheat, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said that military units are always vigilant against corruption and illegal businesses, adding that this will not change with the new partnerships.
“The duty of the military is to defend the nation – they do not have any power to protect illegal businesses,” Chhum Socheat said. “We have the law, and if [businesses] do anything illegal, they will be punished by the law, and the military cannot help them.”
For his part, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said a “culture of sharing” has long been a part of Cambodian society, and that the initiative is simply a way of formalising charitable donations from the business community that have occurred for many years.
Though he was unsure when the partnerships would be inaugurated, Phay Siphan said the companies’ support would likely come in the form of food, shelter and support for military families.
“We call it generosity,” Phay Siphan said.
Owen noted, however, that the programme could pose a challenge to good governance in the Kingdom, obscuring sources of military financing that he said are already “pretty opaque”.
“When the military starts receiving revenues from sources that aren’t under the government’s complete control, you do get these issues of transparency,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE