Alex Corporation, the firm behind a proposal for an ambitious Mondulkiri mining project, appears to be ultimately owned by ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin and his wife, Choeung Sopheap, the Post has discovered, a scenario rights groups say should give cause for concern.
The Ministry of Environment announced last Friday that it is currently examining the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for a planned 26,000-hectare mining project spanning O’raing district and Sen Monorom town in southern Mondulkiri.
An official from the ministry’s EIA evaluation department said earlier this week that Alex Corporation had given its word that it would not provoke conflicts with communities affected nor forcibly evict any that reject compensation offers.
But Alex Corporation’s apparent owners have a long history of involvement in such conflicts, not only in southern Mondulkiri but across Cambodia.
Meng Khin and Sopheap were described in a 2007 US Embassy cable as the Kingdom’s “Power Couple”. A 2009 report by Global Witness found that they held the rights to at least 7 percent of all land in Cambodia, primarily through the Pheapimex Group, of which Sopheap is chair.
In 2004, Pheapimex entered into a joint venture with a Chinese plantation firm Wuzhishan. That year, several protesters were injured by a hand grenade while demonstrating against the joint venture’s Pursat province economic land concession (ELC).
The following year, the joint venture was granted a 336-square-kilometre wood pulp ELC in southern Mondulkiri. But, according to a 2007 UN human rights office report, before the concession had even been officially granted, the company had already begun working on land inhabited by the indigenous Phnong community. The outline of that ELC is near identical to that of the area Alex Corporation has proposed to begin mining for bauxite next year.
No publicly available document explicitly links Meng Khin and Sopheap to Alex Corporation. However, its chairperson, Lau Zhong Yao, is a director of Pheapimex Group, Wuzhishan and a third Meng Khin-Sopheap venture, Cambodia International Investment Development Group (CIIDG).
Alex Corporation’s registered office is in the same building as CIIDG and an accountant for Alex Corporation told the Post yesterday that its owners are the same as CIIDG’s.
Rights groups representatives yesterday said that Alex Corporation’s connection to the Pheapimex owners warrants vigilance. Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, has worked for many years on a dispute surrounding another of the couple’s high-profile development projects.
Starting in 2008, thousands were evicted from their homes around Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake to make way for a real estate project led by the Meng Khin-headed Shukaku Inc. The project is still yet to materialise, while many evictees remain homeless and uncompensated.
“We’re involved in a case with [Sopheap] and Lao Meng Khin and there’s always problems,” Vuthy said. “So what I can say is they have to disclose everything and follow the law, and the government has the responsibility to make sure the company respects the law and the rights of the local people.”
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson took a stronger line via email yesterday: “These villagers in Mondulkiri should recognize now that if Alex Corporation gets the green light from the government for this huge mining project, the history of the people behind this company indicates these villagers are going to be project cannon fodder, to be pushed off their land whether they agree or not, likely with a pittance for compensation.”
Kreung Tola, a representative of the Phnong community in O’Raing district, yesterday said the community had been given no documentation regarding the project and that they objected to it at a recent meeting with Alex Corporation and the authorities. The project EIA found 90 percent of affected communities believed the project would negatively affect them.
With the exception of the accountant, other representatives of Pheapimex, CIIDG and Alex Corporation this week were either unreachable or declined to comment.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY