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Dredging figures do not add up

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A dredging boat and a barge work to collect sand from the Mekong River on the outskirts of Phnom Penh earlier this year. Heng Chivoan

Dredging figures do not add up

Transparency and environmental groups are calling on the Anti-Corruption Unit to investigate potential smuggling in the sand-dredging industry after a gaping $750 million discrepancy was discovered between Cambodia’s documented sand exports and Singapore’s imports.

On the UN Commodity Trade (UN Comtrade) Statistics Database, Cambodia reported exporting $5.5 million worth of sand, about 2.8 million tonnes, to Singapore between 2007 and 2015. However, the database shows for that same period, Singapore imported $752 million in sand from the Kingdom, amounting to 72.7 million tonnes.

This shortfall, totalling hundreds of millions of dollars and first reported by Radio Free Asia, most likely points to corruption, observers said.

Mother Nature co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson said sand was illegally smuggled out of Cambodia routinely and would suddenly appear on Singapore’s shores, where stricter anti-corruption laws applied.

“The loss of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of sand is nothing short of a tragedy – to the local communities who have seen their livelihoods decimated as a result of the mining, and to the nation as a whole,” he said via email yesterday.

“Instead of ensuring that revenue from the sand mining sector enters state coffers and benefits neglected sectors such as education and health, it instead ends up in the pockets of a few corrupt government officials and their crooked business partners.”

He said such practices led to shrinking and loss of Cambodian territory, only to fuel Singapore’s expanding coastline.

Although the database points out that exports and imports between countries will not always be equivalent due to importing countries bearing the brunt of extra freight or insurance costs, the vast difference in tonnes moved hinted at darker underlying causes.

Gonzalez-Davidson, who in February 2015 was deported after a direct order from Prime Minister Hun Sen, added that Mother Nature activists would be calling on the ACU to investigate the Ministry of Mines and Energy, which he described as “little more than a criminal syndicate”, including Minister Suy Sem.

ACU head Om Yentieng yesterday said he would investigate if a complaint was filed and it fell under his authority. “If there are no clues, we will inform the public that there are no hints that this is involved in corruption,” he said.

In the wake of the alarming figures, Transparency International executive director Preap Kol also urged the government to act. “Cambodian people need to know why there is such a huge discrepancy,” he said via email. He said such a case deserved proper, transparent investigation to find out if tax evasion had occurred or if corrupt practices were rife in the business.

Under Cambodian tax law, sand-dredging companies would be required to pay a 20 percent profit tax on this unaccounted-for product, but yesterday, Holl Thirith, vice head of the statistics bureau in the general department of taxation, declined to comment.

Ministry of Mines and Energy spokesman Dith Tina and Ministry of Commerce spokesperson Soeng Sophary both cast doubt on the reliability of the UN statistics, but neither official was able to produce alternative figures by press time yesterday.

“Your source of information, I do not trust it,” Sophary said.

The Singapore Embassy could not be reached late yesterday, but in a letter to Mother Nature in January this year, seen by the Post, First Secretary Oliver Ching said sand trade from Cambodia to Singapore was purely commercial and the Singapore government was not involved.

The news comes after a Post report in May found 70 sand-dredging licences had been secretly issued since June last year, despite government promises to be more transparent.

Additional reporting by Mech Dara and Daniel Nass

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