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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Stories of the year

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The nation was rocked by the assassination of a prominent government critic, as Prime Minister Hun Sen kept the pressure on the opposition. A crackdown on illegal logging was short-lived and the country struggled through a record drought. The Post looks back at some of the year’s most important stories.

Stories of the year

A voice silenced

Nothing shocked Cambodia more in 2016 than the July 10 shooting death of prominent political analyst Kem Ley. The government critic was enjoying his morning coffee routine at a Caltex in Phnom Penh, when 46-year-old ex-soldier Oeut Ang allegedly fired two bullets from an expensive Glock handgun, one into his head and another below his arm. Few, including the suspect’s family, believed Ang’s purported motive – that he had killed Ley over a $3,000 debt. The Siem Reap native – who told police his name was Chuop Samlab, which translates to “Meet to Kill” – had little money and had never made mention of his victim. Almost immediately, critics tagged the murder a political assassination.

Though Prime Minister Hun Sen and officials strenuously denied involvement, the glaring inconsistencies surrounding the suspect and a lacklustre investigation have only continued to fuel suspicions of a cover-up. Spurred by grief and anger at the loss of the popular commentator – an architect of the fledgling Grassroots Democracy Party – tens of thousands flooded the streets to watch the funeral procession from the capital to Ley’s native Takeo province. Fearing for her family’s safety, Ley’s widow, Bou Rachana, fled abroad with her four children to seek asylum. In October, she gave birth to the late analyst’s fifth son. With the court this week announcing the end of its investigation, and no new answers emerging, questions about the murder look set to continue in 2017.

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The body of slain political analyst Kem Ley is escorted through the streets of Phnom Penh after he was murdered at a petrol station on the city’s Monivong Boulevard in July. Athena Zelandonii

Attack mode

Characteristic of his three decades in power, Prime Minister Hun Sen turned up the heat on his opponents this year before setting the temperature on simmer, pursuing what critics slammed as a judicial crackdown against opponents before striking a deal to ease the tension. With pivotal elections looming and Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy again abroad to avoid arrest, attention quickly turned to CNRP deputy Kem Sokha and, in February, the focus narrowed on his love life.

Bearing the hallmarks of a stitch-up, secretly recorded and seemingly tapped phone conversations appeared online suggesting the opposition leader had an affair with 25-year-old salon worker Khom Chandaraty. Light on legal logic but heavy on manpower, officers from the Anti-Corruption Unit and anti-terror police aggressively probed the scandal. In May, charges were brought, implicating not just opposition members but also figures from civil society, in what many saw as an attack on the sector. For allegedly trying to “bribe” Chandaraty to deny the tryst, authorities imprisoned four human rights workers from rights group Adhoc, an election official, and an opposition commune chief. Accused of “acquiring a prostitute”, Sokha, meanwhile, chose self-imposed detention, taking refuge in the party’s headquarters after police attempted to arrest him for ignoring court summonses related to the case.

And there, for six months, things stayed. Sokha contained but defiant, the international community aghast but powerless, and the Cambodian People’s Party, their hands on the levers, routinely denying the cases were political. As the year drew to a close, the eerily familiar final act came in December. This time it was Sokha’s, not Rainsy’s turn to get a royal pardon, leaving the deputy free, the president exiled and tensions between the two bubbling. Reports that those still locked up in connection with Sokha’s case will soon be released suggest the long-running carrot and stick routine looks set to continue into 2017. But with six months until commune elections and the 2018 national ballot looming, the script may soon be rewritten.

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A woman protest the detention of human rights workers outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in May, after Adhoc staffers were sent to Prey Sar prison for allegedly bribing a witness in the scandal surrounding CNRP acting president Kem Sokha. Hong Menea

Dredging up trouble

Where do you hide 70 million tonnes of sand? That was the question on everyone’s lips when data from the UN showed a whopping discrepancy – totalling hundreds of millions of dollars – between Cambodia’s reported exports of sand to Singapore, and Singapore’s reported imports from the Kingdom. The damning figures revealed while Cambodia reported 2.8 million tonnes of sand to Singapore between 2007 and 2015, worth $5.5 million, the city-state received 72.7 million tonnes, valued at $752 million. The government slammed the data as “misleading”, until their own commerce statistics, along with customs data from Singapore, confirmed them to be true. Integrity Cambodia estimated the lost revenue at $35 million. The gaping disparity – first brought to light by NGO Mother Nature – raised the spectre of corruption for several transparency NGOs, as well as the opposition party, who demanded answers from the Ministry of Mines and Energy. The collective outrage saw a temporary halt on sand exports by companies licensed in coastal areas, as well as a moratorium on granting or renewing new sand-export licences.

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Workers on a barge loaded with sand dredged from the Tatai River earlier this year in Koh Kong province. Data from the UN this year showed a huge discrepancy between Cambodia’s reported exports of sand to Singapore, and Singapore’s reported imports from Cambodia. The difference totalled hundreds of millions of dollars. Athena Zelandonii

Bearing witness

Though long speculated to be large, the vast fortune amassed by the family of Prime Minister Hun Sen finally hit the headlines in July, when investigative group Global Witness released a report detailing the clan’s extensive business interests. Hostile Takeover: The Corporate Empire of Cambodia’s Ruling Family revealed that 27 relatives of the premier held stakes in at least 114 domestic companies with an official share capital value of more than $200 million. The holdings, spanning 18 sectors and including major energy, telecoms, mining and trading firms, showed the premier had “abused his position” to enrich his family during more than 30 years in power, argued Global Witness, which stressed the findings were just the “tip of the iceberg”. The family dismissed the report. Hun Sen posted a group photo of his kin toasting together with champagne. Three of his children, including his daughter Hun Mana, a business mogul, accused The Post of “colluding” with other newspapers who published the report to damage their reputation. A month later, it emerged the Ministry of Commerce had scrubbed their corporate database – the source of the documents underpinning the report. “There’s no clear distinction between business and politics in Cambodia,” Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, remarked at the time.

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A Global Witness report revealed the Hun Sen family had amassed a ‘vast fortune’, with stakes in at least 114 companies in most of Cambodia’s key sectors. Photo supplied

The baby trade

The legally murky and extremely lucrative industry of surrogacy in the Kingdom was thrust into the international spotlight this year. After various controversies pushed the business of rented wombs out of India, Nepal and Thailand, desperate intended parents and industry providers set up shop in Cambodia, with the first surrogate baby born here at the beginning of the year. The practice operated under a shroud of secrecy while the government worked on developing an anti-surrogacy law, until the Ministry of Health quietly issued a directive banning commercial surrogacy. But the issue came to a head when anti-trafficking police arrested Australian recruiter Tammy Davis Charles in November, unravelling a network of Cambodian women who had been implanted with foreign embryos. Many of the impoverished women who had been paid $10,000 – a relative fortune compared to the salaries of garment workers – to carry another’s child were left in legal and financial limbo. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also sought to block birth certificates for babies delivered by a surrogate mother to prevent parents from leaving the country with a child they considered a victim of human trafficking. The issue has proved to be an ethical quagmire: Those who advocate for surrogacy highlight its relative affordability for couples desperately hoping for a child of their own, while opponents say a foreigner’s desire to have a baby with their own genetic material amounts to a selfish exploitation of poor women’s bodies. The drafting of the surrogacy law is expected to begin in early 2017, while the industry is yet again pushed further afield to countries such as Laos.

They really ‘like’ me

The year opened with Hun Sen neck-and-neck with opposition leader Sam Rainsy in a well-publicised Facebook popularity contest. But shortly after pulling ahead in the race for “likes”, Hun Sen’s dominance over the Cambodian social media landscape was tempered by the revelation, via analytics site SocialBakers, that a large and ever-expanding portion of those followers were not in fact members of the prime minister’s constituency. A March Post report revealed that hundreds of thousands of the accounts “liking” the premier’s page had originated in India and the Philippines – countries known for the presence of “click farms” that generate legions of spurious followers. Hun Sen and government representatives strenuously denied any foul play, insisting that the numbers merely reflected the premier’s popularity abroad. Rainsy seized on the news from self-imposed exile, penning a Facebook post in which he accused a CPP official of orchestrating a campaign to artificially bolster the page’s “like” count. The claim saw a fresh defamation case added to the already hefty stack of charges against the beleaguered opposition leader, and in November, a judge slapped him with a guilty verdict. Hun Sen’s page has continued to accrue “likes” from around the world, and bona fide Cambodian accounts now make up just a hair over half of his 6.5 million fans – an all-time low.

Centre of controversy

The past year saw fresh troubles for the scandal-rocked National Malaria Centre (CNM), after a Post investigation revealed new evidence of graft just months after a protracted feud with major donor the Global Fund over stricter expense reporting requirements. Beginning in July of 2015, the CNM had refused to accept a $12 million dollar Global Fund grant because the fund – stung by a previous scandal in which CNM officials had enriched themselves on the backs of contracts paid for with fund money – had demanded the CNM provide receipts to account for travel expenses covered by the fund. That standoff broke when the fund relented in January, but not before at least three people died of malaria, deaths CNM director Huy Rekol publicly seemed to suggest were the Global Fund’s fault. Not four months later, a Post investigation – based on leaked internal documents and extensive inside accounts – implicated the CNM in corrupt dealings yet again, this time over the very travel expenses the Global Fund had sought to better regulate. Mid-level CNM officials were found to be doling out contract-based “driver” positions to friends and family members, who in turn used those positions to claim thousands of dollars in often fake travel expenses paid for by donors such as the Global Fund and FHI 360, routinely excluding the centre’s legitimate technical staff from undertaking crucial field work. The Global Fund and USAID launched investigations, but the response from the CNM was muted. The Ministry of Health, in a letter to mid-level unit heads, ultimately acknowledged some “inappropriate phenomena” in awarding contractor positions, but did not explicitly mention the CNM, or describe any action taken to address the apparent fraud.

Labour intensive

Not quite a year after passing a controversial law governing the operation of NGOs, the government in April pushed through another highly contentious piece of legislation: the Law on Trade Unions. Trumpeted by the government and employers as the answer to Cambodia’s oft-strained industrial relations, the law – the passage of which was preceded by a violent clash between security guards and pro-union demonstrators – sets out guidelines for union creation, strike votes and collective bargaining. But it was widely panned by local and international unions, labour rights groups as well as the International Labour Organisation for contravening core labour conventions 87 and 98. In a letter sent to Labour Minister Ith Samheng obtained by The Post, the ILO flags serious concerns over the exclusion of informal workers, discriminatory requirements for prospective union leadership and cumbersome quota conditions for strike votes. Six months down the line, independent unions say they are already feeling the pinch, with many claiming to have been unable to form new factory-level unions, given the burdensome documentation requirements. Even as unions struggle to come to terms with the new law, the Labour Ministry is moving forward with plans for a national minimum wage law that has prompted concerns over language that could restrict unions’ rights to expression and assembly.

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Unionist Suth Chet is restrained by Daun Penh district security guards during an anti-union law protest near Phnom Penh's National Assembly in April. Hong Menea

Drought redux

The past year may have been one of the most environmentally devastating on record for the Kingdom, as one of the strongest El Niño climate cycles – exacerbated by climate change – prolonged a record-breaking drought affecting Southeast Asia into its second year. The accompanying heat-wave made April the hottest month ever recorded in Cambodia, with a record temperature of 42.6 degrees Celsius set in Preah Vihear. The heat caused massive die-offs of fish, bats and livestock. A massive algal bloom in the waters of Kep Bay, caused by a combination of heat and nutrient-rich runoff, caused a public health scare and suffocated marine life. The drought itself left farmers in the country without crops, and water shortages threatened the provincial capital of Banteay Meanchey, sparking a nationwide operation that saw the military and UN agencies mobilised. The disaster acutely highlighted the lack of adequate water infrastructure, preparation and the lack of resilience against drought caused by decades of deforestation. The water levels in the Mekong and Tonle Sap reached record-lows and the flooded forests surrounding the Tonle Sap lake reached a level of dryness that allowed an estimated third of the 640,000-hectare area to burn. The burning of the flooded forests, themselves the breeding ground for fish, will likely have far-reaching effects in years to come.

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Kheun Koy, aged 10, gathers water in Banteay Meanchey Hong Menea

Timber ‘take-down’

Hun Sen announced in January that 2016 would be the year Cambodia finally put an end to its illegal logging epidemic. Central to his policy was the establishment of an anti-logging taskforce headed by Military Police Commander Sao Sokha. By February, the premier was already berating Sokha, asking him during a speech why he had not deployed rockets against illegal loggers. “I gave two helicopters to Sao Sokha, who has not taken a single shot,” Hun Sen said. “Take the shot from above – it is not that complex.” Two months later, the taskforce was announcing its first great successes, seizing 70,000 cubic metres of timber and, crucially, claiming to have completely halted the illicit flow of Cambodian timber to Vietnam. The announcement was met with scepticism by long-time observers of Cambodia’s deforestation, and rightly so. Vietnamese customs data would later show that millions of dollars of timber were still leaving the Kingdom for its eastern neighbour. The government continued to maintain through year’s end that large-scale logging no longer existed in Cambodia. But activists and Post reporters would continue to observe trucks heavily laden with timber making their way eastwards; and while cottage-industry logging and sawmill operations were sporadically shut down by government officials, logging tycoons went unpunished and the depletion of Cambodia’s forests rolled on.

Panama problems

When the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists announced that Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana’s name had turned up among the Panama Papers – an enormous data leak from offshore registration firm Mossack Fonseca – Vathana denied any knowledge of British Virgin Islands (BVI) firm RCD International Ltd, in which he supposedly had shares. But when the consortium released the names of his fellow shareholders, it emerged he had been doing business with individuals claiming to head up a shadowy UN organisation, “the Office of International Treasury Control” (OITC). The UN has repeatedly denied any connection to the OITC, which has been implicated in bombastic swindles in multiple countries – including Cambodia, where two of Vathana’s fellow shareholders were tried for fraud in 2010. As more details emerged, Vathana continued to deny a connection to the company; although the managing director of the BVI firm that registered Vathana’s company told The Post it was his firm’s policy not to register any shareholders without seeing proof of identity, address and the source of the investment funds. Half a year later, The Post uncovered a company by the name of OITC in Singapore, with an identical set of shareholders to RCD International. Once again, Vathana denied any knowledge of the company. But Singaporean business regulations require proof of identity and address to register a shareholder, which led those in the know to say it would be next to impossible for Vathana to have been registered as a shareholder without his knowledge.

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