After being ordered to appear in front of National Assembly lawmakers yesterday over concerns of illegal logging at a hydropower dam site, Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem instead used his time to talk up the benefits of the project to Cambodia’s development.
Sem was summoned to answer questions about the controversial Lower Sesan II dam in Stung Treng province after former provincial governor-turned-CPP lawmaker Loy Sophat expressed concerns over claims of illegal logging in May.
But those questions remained unanswered yesterday after Sem faced an assembly wholly comprising fellow Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers – who agreed with him that the Lower Sesan II was part of the solution to Cambodia’s electricity shortages.
“It’s not my duty to respond to questions about illegal logging,” Sem told reporters after the closed-door session yesterday, referring such allegations to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, which could not be reached.
Sophat, who last May voiced worries about illegal logging outside the dam’s reservoir area, said yesterday that he had not pushed the issue in parliament.
“I did address concerns about illegal logging, and I’m still concerned about illegal logging in this area, but the minister’s answer was acceptable, because the forest is not his responsibility,” he said.
During the session, Sem told ruling party lawmakers that 797 families would be affected by the hydropower dam in Srekor, Kbal Romea and Phluk communes, but would all be compensated with five hectares of land and company-funded housing.
“So far, the company has compensated 12 families with a package of cash,” he said.
Allegations of illegal logging outside the Lower Sesan II dam area have hounded the project since construction began in November.
The 420-megawatt dam is a joint venture between Cambodian tycoon Kith Meng’s Royal Group and Hydrolancang International, a subsidiary of state-owned China Huaneng Group, which formed Hydropower Lower Sesan II Co Ltd in November 2012.
Logging concessions owned by Royal Group subsidiary Ang & Associates were suspended on October 16, following allegations of illegal logging in a community forest.
A Post report in February revealed that despite the government ordering an investigation into the allegations, one was never launched.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay yesterday called any line of questioning about the progress of the dam project in parliament “illegitimate” due to the absence of Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers, who continue to boycott the 55 seats they won at last July’s election.
“CPP lawmakers today won’t dare to ask [Suy Sem] the hard questions,” he said.
“We [the CNRP] have never supported the Sesan II project. The construction firm has been unclear about how or when locals will be compensated, and the government has continuously ignored reports of illegal logging and how devastating the environmental impact will be.
But prominent ruling party lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the any complaints the opposition had were its own fault for remaining outside the assembly.
“Today’s session was a message to our opponents,” Yeap said. “[Sem] took responsibility in front of the prime minister and National Assembly in defence of the ruling party.”
Away from the parliament, villagers set to be affected by the dam remain concerned.
According to Seak Mekong, the commune chief in a part of Stung Treng’s Sesan district that will be flooded by the dam’s reservoir, community members have been told little and continue to wait for compensation.
“The compensation has only appeared in document [form], and relocation to the new site has not started,” Mekong said.
Conservation groups yesterday called for thorough investigations into illegal logging and further assessment of the project’s potential negative impacts.
“Rather than just listening to the Ministry of Mines and Energy – who has been promoting the project – it’s important they hear the concerns of the affected communities and call in scientific experts to fully understand the project's severe impacts," Ame Trandem, International Rivers’ Southeast Asia program director, said.
“The impacts the dam will have on the Mekong’s fish and the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people will undermine the country’s development efforts.”
Any “real” conversation about the $816 million project must involve a discussion about the accountability of all parties involved in the project, Meach Mean, coordinator of the 3S Rivers Protection Network, said.
“This [questioning] is just like a show trial where the government can pretend they are concerned about legal compliance or about how the dam site will impact water quality or if there is logging outside of the reservoir area,” Mean said.
“The voices of those being affected will not really be heard.”