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Sugar giant in spotlight for abuse

Evictees watch a building burn next to a sugar plantation in Oddar Meanchey
Evictees watch a building burn next to a sugar plantation in Oddar Meanchey after authorities set it alight during a 2009 eviction. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Sugar giant in spotlight for abuse

Thailand's human rights commissioner has issued damning preliminary findings against Asia’s largest sugar producer in relation to alleged abuses committed on large economic land concessions in Oddar Meanchey province.

A complaint was filed with the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT) by local NGOs on behalf of 602 villagers in Samrong and Chongkal districts in May last year.

They alleged that systematic rights abuses had occurred during the establishment of three concessions for industrial sugar cane production awarded to shell companies owned by Thai firm Mitr Phol Sugar Corporation in 2008. The concessions are also allegedly linked to ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat, though his company denied that claim yesterday.

At a press conference yesterday, NHRCT commissioner Dr Nirun Phitakwatchara said that after visiting three villages and one resettlement site earlier this week, he had found that local communities had “collapsed” as a result of the concessions.

“The concessions have resulted in the illegal confiscation of land from local people, destruction of their homes, killing of livestock, arson, looting of crops, beatings, threats, intimidation and arrest of villagers – which led to extreme food insecurity and impoverishment over a period of several years,” he said.

While Nirun had only communicated with Mitr Phol in writing, he would seek face-to-face meetings in Thailand, he said.

Mitr Phol could not be reached for comment yesterday but has previously said it had “followed a land concession process prescribed by law”.

Nirun added that he had only seen cassava crops, and not sugar cane, during his fact-finding mission.

Um Sokhon, a Samrong city councillor, confirmed that the companies had cleared sugar cane crops last year.

“The companies are under pressure from the international community, which stopped buying their sugar, so sugar cane was cut down last year to plant cassava instead,” he said.

Sokhon also said that the three concessionaires – which Mitr Phol has admitted are part of a joint venture – are under the control of Yong Phat.

But Seng Nhak, director of the senator’s Phnom Penh Sugar company, said he could “categorically deny that there is any link” between Yong Phat and Mitr Phol in Oddar Meanchey.

A separate complaint was lodged with the NHRCT in January 2010 by communities in Koh Kong province against Thai sugar company KSL.

The commission’s preliminary findings regarding that case in July 2012 also backed their allegations and Nirun said that a final report will be issued in October.

While Nirun admitted that the NHRCT “had no power” to sanction firms or take legal action, he said its reports on both cases would “tell the truth” and could be used to support litigation.

Two hundred Koh Kong families have filed a lawsuit in London against UK sugar firm Tate and Lyle, which they say owes them compensation because it purchased sugar from KSL.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY

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