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Friends in high places

A section of beach in Ream National Park in Preah Sihanouk province in 2008 where part of Yeejia Development’s Golden Silver Gulf Resort is to be built
A section of beach in Ream National Park in Preah Sihanouk province in 2008 where part of Yeejia Development’s Golden Silver Gulf Resort is to be built. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Friends in high places

A Chinese developer with a “family-like” relationship to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit has accelerated construction at its $5 billion resort – ostensibly cancelled by royal decree in 2010 – in a protected national park in Preah Sihanouk province.

The 3,300-hectare Golden Silver Gulf resort in Preah Sihanouk’s Ream National Park was slated by Hun Sen to be “the second gold card for Cambodian tourism after Angkor Wat”, according to the concessionaire, Yeejia Development Co Ltd.

The resort has support from the Chinese government, with China’s ambassador, Bu Jianguo, last year describing it as “heaven on earth”, and funding coming from a Chinese state-operated charitable foundation that has New Zealand’s ambassador to the US Mike Moore – a former prime minister and World Trade Organisation director general – listed as a consultant to its projects.

Yeejia, a subsidiary of Chinese-owned firm Unite International (Cambodia) Investment Group, formed a “military-commerce alliance” with the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit after the company made a series of “donations” to the elite force, including 220 motorbikes accepted on behalf of the unit by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An in January 2009.

Nine months later, Unite Group chairman Fu Xian Ting met Hun Sen at his residence in Takhmao. Hun Sen promised to endorse the project publicly in a letter.

“In order to speed up the construction of the project, I will approve the establishment of a special committee to resolve various contradictions and problems encountered in the course of the project,” Hun Sen said, according to Yeejia’s website.

Bill Pho, Fu’s executive assistant, said yesterday that the company had recently accelerated construction in the eastern part of the concession, and had been given the “green light” by the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.

“We still have some problems in the land titling; we have this problem,” Pho said yesterday. “We planned to build for 20 years. Now we are building 600 hectares for the first phase in the eastern part [Koh Seh]. That might take five years. We can move more quickly now that we have stable politics,” he said, referring to the authorities’ promise to local villagers to assign them land titles in the coming months.

Shortly after then-Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh offered his own endorsement of the project in May 2010, the Council of Ministers issued a royal decree revoking all licences held by Yeejia for development of Golden Silver Gulf.

The decree passed responsibility for the area over to the Ministry of Environment. But the ministry issued a report to Hun Sen in 2011 that showed the contract with Yeejia had not been cancelled in practice. Rather, cooperation with the government had actually increased.

“I think the ministry must be consistent with the Council of Ministers. The decision must be made by the superior authority,” legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said yesterday.

Rights groups yesterday said construction at the site never ceased and Fu had personally requested the royal decree be passed to deflect criticism over land grabs.

Boun Narith, provincial coordinator for Licadho, said the company has finished building a road and bungalows, and has been cutting down trees. “[Yeejia] did not allow villagers to do anything on their land, and some people had to move to new places, because their houses [were knocked down],” he said.

Despite the royal decree banning the project, it continues apace, with support from the military, ministries and the Chinese government.

“We just got a green light from the oil ministry. The new minister of environment, he works very hard with us,” Pho said.

On October 20, 2009, Hun Sen penned his letter of support as promised. “I would like to express gratitude and support for your company in trusting the Royal Government of Cambodia and deciding to invest in the development of tourist areas in Cambodia, and wish the company success in the implementation of the investment project,” he wrote.

The relationship between the bodyguard unit and Yeejia was formalised at a ceremony at Hun Sen’s Takhmao residence on April 20, 2010, overseen by General Pol Saroeun, commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

“The company has supported [the bodyguard unit] with some equipment before. I’m not sure exactly what was donated,” Pho said yesterday.

The military-corporate relationship is one of dozens formed since Hun Sen announced private businesses could bankroll military units to “solve the dire situation of the armed forces, police, military police, and their families through a culture of sharing”, according to a government memo published in April 2010.

“Since the end of Cambodia’s civil war, the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces has operated as a vast organised crime network,” Gavin Hayman, campaigns director at Global Witness, said at the time. “It is unacceptable for private companies to be financing a military renowned for its corruption and involvement in illegal activities and human rights abuses.”

A villager who has lived near the site since 1992, who asked to be referred to only as Piseth, said the company had not followed the master plan approved by the government’s investment body, the Council for the Development of Cambodia, and had parcelled off land and logged extensively.

“The company did not do as their master plan [instructed]. They just cut the tress and land for sale,” he said yesterday.

On February 25, he added, Yeejia had stopped his community from rebuilding some houses with the support of about 40 security guards, naval officers and police.

The involvement of the navy could not be immediately confirmed. However, on January 26 last year, commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit General Hing Bun Heang attended a ceremony in Bentrang village, Ream commune, where he called on Admiral Tea Vinh to actively support the project, according to Yeejia’s website.

Former Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, whose government passed the Law on Protected Areas, at the opening of the Ream National Park in 1995, said the law was passed because “the pillage is terrible”.

Marcus Hardtke of German conservation group ARA, said concessions in protected areas, such as the Golden Silver Gulf resort project, have no legal basis.

“All these land grabs in protected areas have no real legal basis, they are just based on deliberate misinterpretation of the [protected areas] law, if not outright in violation of it,” he said. “It has by now led to sometimes grotesque situations … and the people responsible for or complicit in these deals should be held accountable under Cambodian law.”

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