ONE-legged fisherman Kong Hean, 48, jumps out of his boat and hops across the
broken bamboo floor of his hut, a broad smile transforming his weather-beaten
face into a sea of deep wrinkles.
"We've waited for these words from
[Prime Minister Hun Sen] for a long time," Hean, a long-time resident of Kanleng
Pe fishing village in Kampong Chhnang, said of his upbeat demeanor.
words that Hean and the two million other Cambodians who depend on fishing as
their primary source of sustenance and income have been waiting for was carried
in a trio of strongly worded speeches made by Hun Sen on October 24 and November
In those speeches, Hun Sen apologized to the country for abuses by
fisheries officers and fishing lot owners for colluding in illegally
appropriating public fishing areas and confiscation and destruction of fishing
nets, lines and traps.
"Fisheries officers are leeches that suck the
people's blood and they are the dogs that guard the fishing concessions," Hun
Sen said in Siem Reap on October 24, in the first of three speeches carried
nationwide on television and radio.
Hun Sen's vilification of "corrupt
fisheries officers" and resulting apologies continued in Kampong Thom on October
"I've been Prime Minister for 15 years, [so I] must be blamed for
this," Hun Sen declared. "If the people demand that I resign [for fisheries
abuses] I may, but they still need me to [increase the size of] their fishing
areas," he said.
Hun Sen's verbal broadside resulted in the dismissal on
October 25 of Fisheries Department Director Ly Kim Hean and three Siem Reap
provincial fisheries officials.
But in spite of the firings and Hun Sen's
promises to reform the country's anarchic and increasingly violence-prone
fishing lots system, Hean and his fellow villagers say they still live in fear
of fisheries officials in the pay of fishing lot owners who on October 22 went
on a rampage of confiscation and destruction of their nets, lines and fish
"This is my new [gill net]," Hean says, pointing to a blue plastic
bag hanging near a bag of rice donated by Hun Sen in October. "I'm afraid they
will take it again."
For Hean and his neighbors, being able to fish means
the difference between food and hunger. A landless 1992 returnee from the Site K
border camp, Heang and the other 120 families of Kanleng Pe eke out a precarious
existence from a combination of fishing and dry-season rice
"I've heard and read his words with my own ears and eyes,
but I'm still waiting to see the result," Kanleng Pe fisheries activist Chem
Chhoeun said of the impact of Hun Sen's speech on his village. "We tried to
record Hun Sen's speech and we will play it back again and again to convince
fishing lot owners to change their ways."
Passing by Chhoeun's hut in a
small boat, Ou Choeun, 40, shouts out one of the village's most commonly-asked
"Brother, can we fish today?" she asked.
well aware of the potentially tragic consequences of fishing in public areas now
claimed by fishing lot owners.
In 1997, her husband was killed by a fish
trap that had been booby-trapped with a grenade. On October 22, Choeun herself
came under fire from armed fishing-lot guards while fishing in what she insists
has long been recognized as a public fishing area.
That same evening,
Kanleng Pe village chief Them Phon and three other villagers were seriously
beaten by guards and police allegedly in the pay of the owner of Kampong Chhnang
fishing lot 13.
Kao Thay, Chief of Kampong Chhnang's Fisheries Office
told the Post discussions were under way to turn over certain areas currently
monopolized by private fishing lots to public use.
In Prey Veng Province,
recent events suggest that such discussions prompted by Hun Sen's promises of
fishing lot reform remain far off.
Peeam Ror and Bapang commune
authorities, who asked not to be named, told the Post on November 17 that Prey
Veng provincial fisheries officers arrested about 30 villagers for fishing in
public fishing areas on the Tonle Touch river.
Peamros commune officials
said the fisheries officers also confiscated costly fishing equipment including
hooks and gill nets.
Touch Seng Tana, an ADB fisheries consultant at the
Fisheries Department in Phnom Penh, applauded Hun Sen's announced intention of
reforming Cambodia's fisheries sector.
But Tana said Hun Sen's actual
plans with regard to the fisheries sector remain a mystery to both himself and
concerned citizens and NGOs.
Meanwhile, Tana said fisheries officials
reap the benefits of a corrupt fishing lot bidding and payment system that
enriches officials but robs the national treasury of desperately needed
According to Tana, in Siem Reap alone people interested in buying
fishing lots must pay up to 10 times the average 12 million riels official list
price for a fishing lot in "tea money" that goes into the pockets of corrupt
"I think that if the bidding process was done
properly the Government would get five to ten times more contributions to the
national budget from the fisheries sector," he said.
opposition Sam Rainsy Party has capitalized on the popular discontent by
initiating a pilot "buy-back" project designed to redistribute fishing lot areas
to needy families.
On December 1 SRP legislators purchased a section of a
fishing lot in Kandal's Prek Tunloab commune which they distributed to 370
fishing families for $4.59 each.
SRP legislator Yim Sovann said that by
abolishing fishing lots in favor of a system in which the Government collects
annual fishing fees of $10 to $20 a family, the Government could increase its
annual fishing revenues from a current $2.5 million to between $10 million and
$20 million annually.
Prime Minister Hun Sen responded furiously to the
SRP actions during a radio address on December 2, calling it
Indications from the Fisheries Department suggest that
neither the lessons of the SRP pilot project nor the concerns of Tana and the
two million Cambodians dependent on fishing are a priority.
contacted by the Post, newly installed Fisheries Department Director Nao Thouk
said he knew little about Cambodia's fisheries sector yet and the urgent calls