Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday blamed Cambodia’s rampant deforestation on local villagers who he claimed had been “incited” by the opposition to clear the forestland, though conservationists were quick to point out that those behind illegal logging are actually often powerful tycoons connected to the ruling party or even officials themselves.
The premier’s comments came while speaking to some 14,000 factory workers from 14 factories in Preah Sihanouk.
He said the country’s population has increased since 1979, and during the ensuing years of civil war, the government allocated money for families to obtain land, but after the war, people started to “clear and take the land by themselves”.
“Just in Kampong Som [Preah Sihanouk province], Kbal Chhay, most [of the land] has been damaged,” he said. “Kbal Chhay, who logged it? Sometimes the opposition party pushed the people to log, and they logged for what? Some people logged to cultivate on the land.”
He also claimed that some people had received land under social land concessions, only to then sell it and claim to be landless.
“They are from the same group – the opposition,” he claimed. “For the businesspeople who are rich, they don’t complain [about being landless].”
Seng Sokheng, with the Community Peace Building Network, said the issue of deforestation doesn’t involve the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was frequently critical of the government’s reluctance to confront illegal logging until it was forcibly dissolved at the government’s behest last year.
“I think that the people behind deforestation are from the CPP [Cambodian People’s Party],” he said, adding that it’s usually tycoons or companies with “close relationships to the prime minister’s family” or some are ruling party members themselves or military or police officers.
Last May, the Environmental Investigating Agency revealed that Cambodian officials in Ratanakkiri, including the provincial Governor Thong Savon, received bribes from traders in Vietnam to open up logging areas and routes in Cambodia. A police investigation into similar allegations in Mondulkiri implicated a number of officials, though none were prosecuted.
Also last May, National Police intercepted a truck belonging to Ang & Associates Lawyer Co Ltd – a subsidiary of the Royal Group chaired by powerful tycoon Kith Meng, once an adviser to Hun Sen – headed toward Vietnam allegedly transporting illegal timber. Since 2013, there have been repeated accusations involving the same company of carrying out illegal logging by clearing outside its permitted area in the reservoir of the controversial Lower Sesan II Dam.
The tycoon Try Pheap, who has perhaps faced more accusations of illegal logging than anyone else, was also once an adviser to Hun Sen. There have also been numerous allegations of deforestation by the military, especially in protected areas.
San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said Hun Sen’s assertion was so outlandish that he initially thought the premier was making a joke. “I think that the government has failed to protect the forest and is making others the scapegoat,” he said.
Ou Chanrath, a former opposition lawmaker, rejected the allegation that the opposition had encouraged people to clear the forest. “The powerful traders are involved in deforestation . . . Cambodians currently don’t dare touch it.”
Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro