It is with great concern that I follow the news recently published by the Phnom Penh Post regarding the involvement of Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC) in the dispute between residents of the Oral village, Kampong Speu province, and Phnom Penh Sugar Company (PPSC), headed by prominent Senator Ly Yong Phat.
The article alerted the readers to some concerning inconsistencies offered by Suon Bunsak, the secretary-general of CHRAC, with regards to his involvement in the compensation deals between the villagers and PPSC, where most villagers were offered a flat compensation of just $500 regardless of the size of their plot.
According to Bunsak, he got involved in the case at the request of Ly Yong Phat and he claimed he was only present in those meetings to “monitor” the forums between PPSC and local villagers. In a follow-up article published the next day, he further asserted that he had the approval of CHRAC’s steering committee to monitor the ongoing dispute.
However, local villagers, supported by EANG Vuthy, of Equitable Cambodia, another prominent NGO that has worked tirelessly on the Kampong Speu dispute since at least 2010, alleged Bunsak was actively engaging with the villagers, and he was doing so without consulting any of the other NGO partners working on this issue. Other NGO and donor actors have questioned Bunsak’s “sudden interest” and his involvement in the case, which resulted in the highly unfair compensation agreements between the villagers and PPSC.
On Friday afternoon, CHRAC released a statement rejecting certain allegations made in the two Phnom Penh Post’s articles. First and foremost, it is reiterated by CHRAC that the action of its secretary-general must be carried out with the approval of the steering committee, it is worth noting that the names of the steering committee members were listed as endorsement to the statement.
The statement further asserts that Bunsak merely “observed” the forum on May 16, 2016, and at no time actively engaged in the dispute-resolution process. This is in direct contradiction to what has been alleged by the villagers and other NGO leaders.
Finally, the statement did not address whether his attendance at an event on April 10 was in his capacity as CHRAC’s secretary-general or in a private and personal capacity at the request of PPSC. He was shown to be seated at a “high table facing the community, two seats away from Phnom Penh Sugar executive Sim Sitha”, making the assertion of “monitoring” difficult to substantiate.
I spent two years working at CHRAC as a human rights adviser between 2013 and 2015 under the Australian Volunteer for International Development (AVID) program, an initiative under the direct control of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. I have continued to work with CHRAC on various shorter-term consultancy contracts after the funding for the AVID program was stopped to support human rights work in Cambodia.
CHRAC is one of the most prominent human rights groups working locally, bringing together 22 like-minded NGOs in a strong coalition that aims to improve the human rights situation in Cambodia. While I was working with CHRAC, we accomplished some important work, including key research reports on economic land concession and NGO’s effectiveness in engaging with UN human rights mechanisms, submission to the various UN human rights bodies, and the continued engagement to promote victims’ rights at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
This reputation now risks being tarnished beyond repair and there is a real chance that CHRAC will lose the support of its key international donor partners.
It is very important to note that at this point, no one has produced any evidence to prove Bunsak’s conduct was in any way illegal or corrupt.
The allegations of the villagers and other NGO leaders would simply suggest he overstepped his role as an observer and engaged, perhaps foolishly, in an attempt to try to resolve the dispute between the villagers and PPSC.
However, Bunsak, who admitted he was asked by Ly Yong Phat to involve himself in this dispute, must now explain why he thought the $500 compensation offered to the villagers was praiseworthy, and provide proof to dispel any allegations that he was working on behalf of PPSC or Ly Yong Phat himself.
It would be extraordinary to suggest that an NGO leader with his experience, along with the members of the steering committee, who are leaders from five of the most prominent human rights NGOs in Cambodia, would simply agree to involve themselves in a long-standing dispute connected with someone as notorious as Ly Yong Phat and PPSC, a company that has a reputation of extreme corrupt behaviour and known to mis-treat its workers in the sugar plantations they own and operate.
Other inconsistencies, such as the reason for Bunsak’s sudden interest in this affair, should also be adequately addressed. Despite the CHRAC’s statement claiming to have “previously worked on this land case in Kampong Speu”, I do not recall any CHRAC activities engaging with the stakeholders in Kampong Speu directly on the land dispute with PPSC during the time I worked there.
It would be a massive blow to the Cambodian human rights cause if a prominent and long-standing human rights coalition like CHRAC would lose its supporters over these yet to be substantiated allegations.
It is understandable that the international donor community would take an overly cautious approach to its funding strategy and they may become very hesitant to fund an organisation that finds itself tangled up with the likes of PPSC and Ly Yong Phat.
The statement published by CHRAC unfortunately does not adequately address the serious allegation that has been implicitly or expressly made not only in the Phnom Penh Post articles, but also privately by many local and international human rights actors.
It is of the utmost importance that CHRAC produce any evidence that would dispel these unhelpful and damaging rumours and allegations, including minutes and voting records of its steering committee meetings in accordance to CHRAC’s own statute, any record of agreements between CHRAC or Bunsak and PPSC.
If this is the action of Bunsak alone, acting beyond the knowledge of the rest of the secretariat staff or the steering committee, then CHRAC, as an organisation, needs to immediately distance itself from Bunsak until the matter is resolved satisfactorily in order to protect the long-term sustainability and reputation of an organisation that has achieved so much since its creation in 1994.
Billy Chia-Lung Tai is an independent human rights and legal consultant.