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Govt balks at disclosure on land deals

Govt balks at disclosure on land deals

The government will not make public all information related to land concessions and

contracts in accordance with donors' requests, Prime Minister Hun Sen said during

a closed-door meeting Thursday.

International donors and government officials attended the event, held at the Council

of Ministers, to discuss failures in reforming Cambodia's natural resources management.

They expressed concern that the government had made little progress toward achieving

several performance monitoring indicators agreed on at last December's Consultative

Group meeting.

Immediate disclosure of all contracts related to state-owned public assets has been

one of the most highlighted indicators. This information has not yet been released

to the public.

"We've considered [disclosure] a litmus test of political will, because it's

so easy to do," said Mike Davis, of forestry watchdog Global Witness. "We're

not asking the government to develop a space exploration program."

During Thursday's opening statements, Fumiaki Takahashi, Japanese Ambassador, stressed

the importance of disclosing contracts and concessions.

But Hun Sen countered that many such documents contain sensitive financial information

and full disclosure might scare off potential investors.

"What kind of investors do they want?" Davis asked. "Most of the ones

that come to Cambodia now are fly-by-nights not looking to make serious investments.

They're gangsters."

Though he said the government would withhold financial details, Hun Sen promised

officials would disclose company names, concession locations, the size of concessions

and the length of concessions.

"This has been a somewhat thorny issue," said a spokesman for the German

Embassy. "It looks like if donors continue to demand full disclosure, they will

be disappointed."

Davis charged that semi-disclosure was a disservice to the Cambodian public.

"If you set a target and both sides agree to it, it should be fulfilled,"

he said. "Nothing short of full public disclosure - including revenues and details

of contracts - will lead to progress."

If there is any validity to the government's claim, Davis continued, it should be

fully examined and further defined.

"You can't just wipe this away by saying 'financial issues are sensitive,'"

he said. "What are companies paying the government? What does the government

earn? Who is all this benefiting?"

Transparency is particularly important in light of current disputes between Phnong

people and Wuzhishan LS Group in Mondolkiri province, said Megan MacInnes, coordinator

of an NGO working group in Mondolkiri. The ongoing conflict has centered around the

Chinese company's activities on traditional Phnong farmland, spirit forests and cemeteries.

"Sometimes the problems in Mondolkiri have come from insufficient disclosure

and consultation," MacInnes said. "It would make things a lot clearer for

everyone."

Hun Sen addressed the situation in Mondolkiri at Thursday's meeting, saying the government

had ordered Wuzishan to suspend operations on disputed land. Company representatives

must meet with relevant ministries before they can continue, he said.

The Prime Minister also ordered that Mondolkiri's governor investigate which lands

are truly significant to the Phnong people.

Throughout the rest of Thursday's meeting "concerns of donors were well-taken

care of," the German Embassy spokesman said.

Hun Sen promised that a subdecree on economic land concessions would be adopted as

soon as possible. He also stressed that no amendment would be made to a clause in

the Land Law limiting concession size to 10,000 hectares.

Donors applauded the Prime Minister's commitment to the populace, said the Embassy

spokesman. In spelling out future criteria for granting concessions, Hun Sen said

in debates between citizens and economic forces, local people should always take

precedence.

"It is clear that the interest of the people is of paramount importance to him,"

the Embassy spokesman said.

The meeting subsequently highlighted the interests of donors and their countries,

he added.

"Donors made it clear that, as representatives of donor countries, they must

make sure that the money spent is implemented for the agreed objective," he

said. "It was made clear that the monitoring indicators were extremely important."

Donors and officials had originally scheduled two meetings to discuss reform benchmarks'

progress mid-year. But at the first event, held June 14, the government announced

the second meeting with Hun Sen would be a smaller gathering.

NGOs and donors insisted the follow-up meeting focus on natural resources, which

was the area where they had seen the least progress.

Though donors in December linked future funding to completion of reform benchmarks,

they shied away from saying if semi-disclosure would affect support.

"We will wait and see how this disclosure is interpreted," the Embassy

spokesman said. "As always, the Devil's in the details."

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