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PMs aid beleaguered timber company

PMs aid beleaguered timber company

IN an odd turn of events, a logging company has been dressed down by a group of high

ranking civilian and military officials in a meeting hosted by the Ministry of Agriculture.

Pheapimex Fuchan appealed to the two Prime Ministers for help in the wake of a Feb

3 meeting where 16 top government and military officials roundly condemned their

logging practices. The Cambodian-owned company has a total concession of 487,985

hectares in Stung Treng, Kompong Thom and Koh Kong provinces.

The PMs responded by appealing to the Minister of Agriculture Tao Seng Huor to back

off in letters dated Feb 18 and Apr 9. The second letter expressed disappointment

that the Feb 3 meeting's recommendations could hinder the country's economic development.

The unprecedented Feb 3 meeting called the company to the mat for a laundry-list

of charges including widespread violation of other concessions, improper use of RCAF

bodyguards, illegal exports and cutting before permits were issued.

Present at the meeting were: Minister of Agriculture Tao Seng Huor; Minister of Commerce

Cham Prasidh, Secretaries of State of Interior Chhun Lim, of Agriculture Chhan Saphan

and of Finance Chea Peng Chheang; Forestry Department Chief Chan Sarun; RCAF Chief

of Staff Ker Kim Yan; RCAF Deputy Chiefs of General Staff Nhek Bun Chhay and Ly Seng

Hong; Hun Sen advisor General Mol Roeup and seven other high-ranking civilian and

military officials.

After candid debate, the participants resolved to prepare a joint-control process

between the Ministry of Agriculture and the General Staff. They also proposed to

cancel a permit to gather 80,000m3 of felled logs to finance "Security Barracks"

for troops loyal to the two prime ministers.

The meeting sparked a letter to Tao Seng Huor from the two Prime Ministers dated

Feb 18, acknowledging that illegal logging is widespread all over the country, but

stating that the activity was carried out "mostly by other people who illegally

cut the trees from other people's concession zone."

It compelled the Ministry of Agriculture to "issue permission immediately so

that [Pheapimex] can start business on time."

The document also stated that the company had made an inventory list and had a big

factory in Kandal province employing thousands of workers whose livelihoods depended

on inputs.

"The Ministry must urge the company to be responsible for forestry protection

and make business technically [sound], so that it will become a good model for attracting

foreign investors which responds to government policy," it said.

The next letter from the two Prime Ministers on Apr 9 began: "We understand

that [the] concept to prohibit the export of logs and hewn wood and the measures

to stop all forestry exploitation. There is not any point that is against or opposes

the decision of the Royal Government that allowed Pheapimex Fuchan company, or other

companies, to collect and transport logs to their plants which were legally established

to process that wood."

It went on to say that the two Prime Ministers would be disappointed if the new factories

using indigenous raw materials were closed "after a short operation due to administration

and technical factors and because irresponsible officials of the Department of Forestry

caused delay and difficulties..."

In closing, the document makes reference to the importance of responsibility within

a hierarchy. "You are the leader and deputy leader of the institution and members

of the Royal Government of Cambodia and have full authority to manage the work under

the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries,"

it said. "We are heads of the government [and] always keep the stance to support

you in all activities that really promote the country's economy"

The unified response of the Prime Ministers stems from the Feb 3 meeting which drew

leaders from both political parties to condemn illegal logging practices and single

out Pheapimex in particular.

Minister of Agriculture Tao Seng Huor opened the meeting with remarkable candor.

"We try, to the extent possible, to implement effectively the Royal Government's

regulations. If there is not transparency, it will affect the aid of $45m and also

badly affect future aid of $560m," he said of IMF payments to be disbursed on

the conditions outlined in the government's 1997 Economic and Financial Policy Plan.

Forestry chief Chan Sarun accused the company of a number of violations of their

agreement in principle to gather 150,000 cubic meters of felled timber in a 500,000

hectare concession, including: cutting illegally in their own concession; encroaching

on other concessions in Stung Treng, Kratie, and Kompong Thom; and cutting in wildlife

sanctuaries. He charges the company of indiscriminately felling a total of 100,000

cubic meters.

"Overall the Royal Govern-ment's policies were completely violated," he

concluded. "Now we have enough evidence, so we decided whether or not we would

do anything."

Gen Nhek Bun Chhay said that Pheapimex had requested the use of 15 soldiers from

each of the Prime Ministers' bodyguard units to protect logs being transported by

river rafts. However, he claimed that the company had used these bodyguards to protect

"illegal logs".

He also claimed that Pheapimex director Chung So Pheap [also known as Yeay Pho] was

seeking to replace the Forestry Chief. "According to some sources, Yeay Pho

said that she will do whatever to dismiss Mr Chan Sarun ... If she failed, she will

stop being called "Yeay Pho," Bun Chhay said.

Secretary of State for the Interior Ministry Chhun Lim said that the government should

stop log shipments to keep foreign aid flowing in. "For this sort of wrongdoing,

we could not hide [it] from the international community."

Commerce Minister Cham Prasidh stressed that if the company was found trespassing

in other zones "we should arrest them on the spot when they cut trees ... whether

the owner complains or not."

He proposed that the Ministry of Agriculture should reconsider all past concessions

and ask for new regulations covering which zones will remain open to logging companies.

RCAF Chief of Staff Ke Kim Yan echoed calls to reconsider the concession, and proposed

a new commission to police future violations. "The General Staff has successfully

controlled illegal activities, but it met with financial difficulties," he said.

Hun Sen advisor Mol Roeup expressed regret that bodyguard units were protecting Pheapimex

convoys. "This affects badly the reputation and honor of both Prime Ministers,

especially the Second," he said. I will propose [they] withdraw their bodyguards,

because I do not believe that the Prime Ministers intended to violate the existing

regulations."

Pheapimex officials either declined to say anything on the record about the allegations

or were unavailable for comment.

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