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Environment Minister Asks for Patience on Areng Valley Dam

25 Nov

By:HUL REAKSMEY, The Cambodia Daily, 25 November 2014

Environment Minister Say Sam Al on Monday asked environmental activists and opposition politicians to be patient as evaluations are carried out into the likely impacts of a controversial proposed dam in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley.

The National Assembly’s agriculture commission, led by CNRP lawmaker Pol Ham, summoned Mr. Sam Al to parliament Monday to answer questions on topics including the proposed 108-megawatt Stung Chhay Areng dam.

Environment Minister Say Sam Al attends a questioning session at the National Assembly on Monday called by opposition lawmaker Pol Ham. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Environment Minister Say Sam Al attends a questioning session at the National Assembly on Monday called by opposition lawmaker Pol Ham. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Ham last week flew by helicopter to the remote dam site, and told reporters after Monday’s meeting that he had reported his findings to Mr. Sam Al.

“The third commission went to visit the Areng area. After we saw it with our own eyes and met the people, we saw that there will be impacts on culture, people’s livelihoods, the forests and the wildlife if this Areng dam is built,” he said.

Mr. Ham said his commission had also asked Mr. Sam Al to push for a specific law requiring environmental impact assessments (EIAs) instead of an existing sub-decree.

“Besides these issues, we…requested His Excellency the minister to discuss EIAs at a regional level, not just the local level, because there are some places like Laos where there is the building of dams that can affect Cambodia,” he said.

Following the commission meeting, Mr. Sam Al told reporters he had told Mr. Ham to be patient while environmental assessments are carried out on the proposed dam.

“For Areng…please give us a chance to make a thorough assessment first. The decision on whether to build or not is another story, but we need to study now,” Mr. Sam Al said.

Villagers around the Areng Valley worry the government will approve the dam regardless of the assessment’s results, concerns heightened when a Chinese construction company recently announced it had signed a contract with the company backing the dam.

The Environment Minister asked the local community not to prevent such assessments from going ahead.

“If the conducting of studies is prevented, I think that it’s a problem and we should not walk this way,” Mr. Sam Al said.

He also said that a specific EIA law was already being drafted.

“We have tried our best to receive inputs from all areas for this law because we hope that the implementation will be efficient when the law comes before the Assembly,” he said.

 

Monk to use court platform

25 Nov

By: May Titthara, Phnom Penh Post, 25 November 2014

An activist monk set to face trial today on widely disputed charges of incitement alongside a so-called “terrorist” leader vowed yesterday to use the hearing to preach to the judiciary.

Loun Sovath, an internationally celebrated human rights defender sometimes referred to as the “multimedia monk”, is charged with “incitement to commit a felony” for allegedly leading land-dispute victims to protest against the authorities.

Today’s case has been combined with one against Sourn Serey Ratha, leader of the dissident Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), who faces additional charges of treason and obstructing electoral procedures.

In a statement released Sunday, 16 NGOs called for authorities to drop the charges against Sovath, adding that, “disconcertingly”, confusion in the court summons made it unclear whether Sovath, too, will be tried for treason and election interference.

They also said that the trial violates a judge’s orders in 2012 that Sovath’s case be separated from that of Serey Ratha.

“In our country, if they want to treat us badly, they will attach us to other people. I never even knew Sourn Serey Ratha,” Sovath said.

He added that he would preach sermons to court officials, urging the court to “adhere to virtue and integrity, and avoid ignorance”.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan hit out at calls for intervention, saying that NGOs should “be more civilised; they should help the government, not interfere” with the rule of law in the Kingdom.

In a statement yesterday, Cambodian-American Serey Ratha, who is currently in Thailand, also called on the court to drop the charges.

Gem brokers told to quit it

24 Nov

By: Sen David, Phnom Penh Post, 24 November 2014

People search for gems in Ratanakkiri’s Bakeo district People search for gems in Ratanakkiri’s Bakeo district last week. Authorities are trying to crack down on unlicensed gem mining. ADHOC

 

Authorities in Ratanakkiri province’s Bakeo district are cracking down on illegal gem-mining operations, according to a rights worker and local official.

Chhay Thy, a coordinator for rights group Adhoc in Ratanakkiri, said homeowners had reported thousands of illegal gem-mining activities in the area.

Thy said that gem brokers, whose identities were unknown, had hired people to dig illegally on land owned by others.

The brokers have allegedly also paid more than $10,000 for the rights to dig up one hectare of private land within the district, villagers reported.

“We went to investigate and take pictures – there were thousands of mining activities [holes in the ground]. We are calling for the authorities to investigate this issue,” Thy said.

Local villager, Sovat Dy, 31, said that while gem digging is a tradition for the people of Bakeo district, the illegal operations have been rampant – resulting in thousands of holes up to 10 metres deep.

“If we dig a whole day – from morning to evening – we could receive 5,000 riel ($1.25 to 10 thousand riel). But if we find a good gem, we could get more than . . . 30,000 riel,” Dy said.

Heng Bunny, Bakeo district governor, said illegal gem brokers have been ordered to cease operations immediately and apply to the Ministry of Mines and Energy for appropriate licences.

Hun Bun Than, a director at the ministry’s provincial office in Ratanakkiri, said citizens with land ownership titles have the right to dig mines up to five metres deep on their own land. But if the holes are any deeper, then the necessary permits are required, he said.

People found to be breaching the rules face fines of 50,000 to two million riel, and even prison time.

“We are checking the digs, but the first step is to stop the action,” Bun Than said.

Cambodian-Born US Politician Joins Prison Protest

24 Nov

By:  CHRIS MUELLER AND MECH DARA, The Cambodia Daily, 24 November 2014

Three weeks after becoming the first Cambodian-American legislator in the U.S., Rady Mom joined hundreds of protesters in Phnom Penh on Sunday to demand the release of 17 imprisoned activists, opposition figures and monks from Prey Sar prison.

Mr. Mom, 45, who was elected as a Massachusetts state representative in the November 4 U.S. midterm elections, arrived in Cambodia last week for a two-week visit to the country.

Dar Rachana, 12, protests outside Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison on Sunday while holding a poster of her grandmother, Nget Khun, who, along with six fellow activists from the Boeng Kak community, was sentenced to a year in prison on November 11. (Satoshi Takahashi)

Dar Rachana, 12, protests outside Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison on Sunday while holding a poster of her grandmother, Nget Khun, who, along with six fellow activists from the Boeng Kak community, was sentenced to a year in prison on November 11. (Satoshi Takahashi)

 

“I feel pity for my brothers and sisters,” a visibly upset Mr. Mom told some 200 protesters outside the maximum-security prison before passing the microphone to his spokesman, Khem Chantha.

“We call, through newspapers and the media, for the government to release our brothers and sisters,” Mr. Chantha told the crowd. “Their crimes are not really serious—blocking traffic is not a penal offense.”

Seven activists from the embattled Boeng Kak community were sentenced to one year in prison on November 11 after being convicted under the Traffic Law of obstructing traffic after they placed a bed frame in the middle of Monivong Boulevard. The stunt was intended to bring attention to flooding in their neighborhood.

The protesters and Mr. Mom hoped to meet with the 17 prisoners—a group that includes 11 activists, three CNRP figures and three monks—but were not allowed to enter the detention facility.

Anti-eviction activist Yorm Bopha, also from the Boeng Kak community, said that while disappointed at not being allowed inside, the protesters were heartened by Mr. Mom’s presence Sunday.

“His support encourages and inspires us to fight for justice, and shows we are not alone,” Ms. Bopha said. “We were happy to see him participate with us to demand the release of the 17 who have been unjustly imprisoned.”

Prior to joining Sunday’s demonstration, Mr. Mom met with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday and opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Saturday. He plans to meet with a number of other CPP and CNRP officials throughout the next week and a half.

While visiting a school inside Phnom Penh’s Svay Pope pagoda Sunday afternoon, Mr. Mom said that despite taking part in the morning’s demonstration, the purpose of his trip was not political.

“The first [reason] was to have a little bit of vacation time,” he said. “I also really wanted to have a connection—see the country where I was born—from a different point of view.”

Mr. Mom said his meeting with Mr. Hun Sen last week was a way for him to view Cambodia through the eyes of the man who has ruled the country for nearly 30 years.

“[The meeting] was to meet a man, a prime minister, who runs this great nation…to get a little bit of insight on how he sees the country,” he said.

Massachusetts state representative-elect Rady Mom speaks to reporters at a school inside Phnom Penh's Svay Pope pagoda Sunday. (Neou Vannarin/The Cambodia Daily)

Massachusetts state representative-elect Rady Mom speaks to reporters at a school inside Phnom Penh’s Svay Pope pagoda Sunday. (Neou Vannarin/The Cambodia Daily)

 

When asked if his view of the prime minister had changed after speaking with protesters and opposition lawmakers—who accuse Mr. Hun Sen’s government of orchestrating some of the arrests—Mr. Mom said he did not know enough about the political situation to comment.

“I don’t’ know the whole story of all that,” Mr. Mom said. “I’m more concerned [about] where I came from.”

Mr. Mom was elected this month as the state representative for the 18th Middlesex district in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell has the U.S.’s second largest Cambodian-American population, numbering about 30,000.

Mr. Mom arrived in the U.S. with his family in 1982 after fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime and spending several years in a Thai refugee camp.

On Sunday, Mr. Mom said he hopes his story will inspire not only his constituents, but young Cambodians as well.

“I went to the States in 1982 without a word of English,” he said. “I want to inspire men and women…whether that’s in the States or here, to inspire them to step up, take pride in what they want to see changed. Don’t just scream out, but step up and do something about it.”

Pursat Authorities Arrest Woman, Raze Homes

24 Nov

By: MECH DARA, The Cambodia Daily, 24 November 2014

Authorities in Pursat province on Saturday arrested a woman attempting to stop them from bulldozing her home, then proceeded to demolish her residence and those of 11 other families locked in a land dispute with a company owned by timber and casino magnate Try Pheap, officials and residents said Sunday.

Villagers in Pursat province’s Veal Veng district have been feuding with Mr. Pheap since 2010, when his MDS Import Export Company was awarded a 2,250-hectare economic land concession in the district on which to build a new border crossing. They claim they have been farming the land for more than a decade.

Deputy provincial governor Keut Chhe said Sunday that provincial authorities destroyed 12 houses in Thma Da commune because MDS had a legitimate claim to the land, while the families did not.

“We removed their cottages,” Mr. Chhe said. “They did not have proper documentation.”

Mr. Chhe said one woman was arrested after she swore at authorities.

“We have detained a woman because she cursed at authorities while they were implementing their orders,” he said.

Khuon Phal Kun, 42, however, said his wife, Sok Da, was arrested merely for pleading with officials to spare their home, which they had lived in since 2000.

“[T]hey accused my wife of stopping them from doing their work, and so they arrested her.”

Mr. Phal Kun said about 40 police, military police and soldiers took part in the operation to tear down the houses, which was supervised by Mr. Chhe, the deputy governor.

He added that he was forced to seek refuge with his neighbors after his home was demolished and his property, including clothing and rice supply, was seized.

“We begged our neighbors for shelter and food,” he said.

Soldier refuses to raze his own land, resigns

24 Nov

By: May Titthara, Phnom Penh Post, 24 November 2014

A soldier has resigned in despair after being ordered to take part in the bulldozing of his own land on Saturday in a remote part of Pursat province entangled in a land dispute with a company owned by business tycoon Try Pheap.

Seng Pov, who worked under Border Battalion 145 in Veal Veng district, said he quit when he realised what he was being asked to do, taking off his uniform and handing over his gun to his boss.

But 11 houses were still razed by a mixed force of soldiers, security guards and local authorities.

“I am indignant that although I defend these territories, I cannot even defend my own land, so I had to quit my job,” Pov said.

The former soldier received the land from his father, a ex-Khmer Rouge soldier who in turn received it in 2000 as part of a reintegration deal.

Prak Sophal, a farmer who said she also lost her home, said the authorities flattened people’s houses and threw livestock into vehicles to be impounded.

“They set up a barricade to block the road to keep the villagers from entering, and even when we asked to go back in to change our clothes they still did not let us and said we had to thumbprint a document,” she said.

According to Sophal, two mines left over from decades of war exploded as the houses were torn down, and one woman was arrested for protesting the destruction of her house.

Deputy Pursat Governor Keut Che said authorities only demolished a dozen “huts” because they were built on government land.

“If those people really have no land [anymore], they can register and ask for a land concession through their commune chief and district governor and the provincial governor will decide,” Che said.

In 2010, the government granted 4,402 hectares of economic land concessions in Veal Veng to MDS Import Export, a company owned by Try Pheap, to be developed for rubber plantations.

Kheang Sochivoan, an MDS representative in Pursat, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Hun Sen Insists Recent Arrests Not Political

21 Nov

By:  Hul Reaksmey, The Cambodia Daily, 21 November 2014

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Thursday told those who have claimed that a spate of recent arrests were politically motivated to “be careful” with their words, and raised the prospect that the seven CNRP lawmakers released from jail on July 22 could still be prosecuted.

Speaking at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen said the July 22 political deal with CNRP President Sam Rainsy, which led the opposition to end its 10-month parliamentary boycott, had not brought an end to criminal justice.

“Please, other people, be careful with your words,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “The agreement of the two political parties on July 22 was not an agreement that put an end to the court processes for criminal cases. I want to clarify this.”

Mr. Hun Sen recounted that during a recent private meeting at the National Assembly, he informed Mr. Rainsy that the “insurrection” cases against the seven CNRP lawmakers and party official who were released from prison on the night of July 22 were not thrown out when the deal was made.

“The July 22 agreement did not end the cases in the court, including what I told His Excellency Sam Rainsy: Nobody can end this criminal prosecution,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “Now, the parliamentarians have immunity, [but they] will be brought to trial if the immunity expires.”

The charges against the seven lawmakers include “leading an insurrection,” which can carry a jail sentence of up to 30 years.

Meach Sovannara, a prominent opposition CNRP official, was arrested and jailed on Tuesday last week—the morning after yet another round of failed talks between the two parties over a new bipartisan election committee.

A number of other political activists were also arrested last week, including a group of seven women from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community, who were sentenced to a year in prison during a trial held the day after they blocked a road with a bed during a protest.

Mr. Hun Sen said Thursday that such cases were clear breaches of the law and had to be prosecuted accordingly.

“It can’t be tolerated when there are roadblocks when something is happening because that’s time for the authorities to take action,” he said. “Is it easy to block a road while there are patients [being taken to the hospital]? And then to…interpret the criminal case as a political case?”

Mr. Sovannara, the CNRP official, was arrested over the same violent July 15 opposition protest that led police to imprison the seven CNRP lawmakers-elect and another party official in the days leading up to the sudden deal between the CPP and CNRP.

The prime minister said Thursday that those eight were released on bail on July 22 because the CNRP agreed to work to settle a number of civil cases against the lawmakers lodged by security guards injured in the protest at the center of their arrests.

“I was a negotiator and there was a request for intervention on the negotiation day,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I told His Excellency Sam Rainsy and his delegation to please speed up the civil cases in order to halt the criminal cases.”

“Why did I say that? It’s because we talked already about entering the parliament, so please enter the parliament, if you have to enter the parliament…for immunity. It’s called a civil procedure to halt a criminal procedure,” he said.

Mr. Hun Sen also claimed Thursday that if he had the power to intervene, he would order the release of Mr. Sovannara and the other political activists arrested and jailed last week.

“Now, they accuse the government of using tools to crack the opposition party or arresting other people as hostages,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I want to send a message back that this case has happened because the prime minister and the government have no rights over the court.

“If I could say, ‘Please courts, don’t arrest,’ it would be convenient,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “I would order the court to release today if I had that right. But I don’t have that right.”

Mr. Rainsy repeatedly said in the weeks after the deal that one of its key benefits would be the absence of arrests of activists and clashes between police and protesters.

At the time, no one in the CPP said that criminal litigation over the July 15 protest or other protests would cease, but both parties said the agreement included a pledge to restore a free political environment after months of protest repression and seemingly spurious arrests of protesters.

The CNRP’s seven lawmakers were sworn into office in August, gaining immunity from prosecution. A two-thirds majority of the 123-seat National Assembly is needed to strip lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity—a figure that neither party holds on its own.

Mr. Hun Sen dismissed claims made by the CNRP and a number of civil society groups over the past week that last week’s arrests were made to pressure the CNRP to fold in deadlocked talks to create the new electoral commission.

“It will not prevent the negotiating process to create the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the National Election Committee and the continuation of the amending of the internal [parliamentary] rules,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

“I think it’s better not to pour gasoline onto a fire,” he added. “Everything must go according to law.”

Electricity Provider Says Power From Koh Kong Dam Not Wasted

21 Nov

By:  Kang Sothear, The Cambodia Daily, 21 November 2014

Cambodia’s national electricity provider issued a statement Thursday disputing claims that the electricity being generated by the 246-megawatt Stung Tatai Dam in Koh Kong province is going unused, and saying the dam is only in a “testing phase.”

The statement issued by Electricite du Cambodge (EdC) contradicts assertions made by Ith Praing, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

In an interview earlier this month, Mr. Praing said that since the Tatai dam went online in mid-August, the electricity it produces “has not been distributed” because the area lacks the required infrastructure.

“[T]hese project facilities are being tested and are incomplete as of now,” the EdC statement says, adding that the dam will not officially go online until early next year.

“As such there has not been any ‘unused electricity’ and ‘lost revenue,’” it says.

Contacted Thursday, Mr. Praing said, once again, that the Tatai dam has created a surplus of electricity.

“We have created electricity that is beyond the capacity of the current power grid during the rainy season, and this electricity has not been used yet,” he said.

“We do not yet have a power grid to absorb and distribute [the electricity],” he added.

Keo Rotanak, the director-general of EdC, could not be reached Thursday.

During a speech on October 6 at an international investment conference, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the development of hydropower dams in the country led to an oversupply of energy during this year’s rainy season.

“During the rainy season in 2014, Cambodia has had a surplus of about 246 megawatts [of electricity] that has not been consumed due to lack of a power grid,” Mr. Hun Sen said. He did not name the Tatai dam specifically.

Mr. Praing has also said the government is planning to build a new power grid to deliver electricity from the Tatai dam to consumers, but is waiting on hundred of millions of dollars’ worth of loans to do so.

According to Chea Sitha, the vice president of Brightway Group, which represents a Chinese company that submitted a proposal to build the grid to the Mines and Energy Ministry last month, the government has already lost some $74 million in revenue because it is unable to sell the dam’s electricity.

Construction Workers’ Lives Hang in the Balance

20 Nov

By: Alex Consiglio and Hay Pisey, The Cambodia Daily, 20 November 2014

Every morning, An Vy slips on a pair of flip-flops and heads to work, climbing 15 flights of stairs littered with debris to the roof of a high-rise condo under construction in Phnom Penh.

There, the scrawny 26-year-old works his way up a maze of scaffolding and teeters on its edge without a safety harness or helmet and begins his work.

Construction worker Phal Roeun, 32, makes his way along a wooden frame atop a condominium construction site on Street 352 in Phnom Penh's Chamkar Mon district. (Alex Consiglio/The Cambodia Daily)

Construction worker Phal Roeun, 32, makes his way along a wooden frame atop a condominium construction site on Street 352 in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district. (Alex Consiglio/The Cambodia Daily)

 

“I am so scared that I’ll fall down from the top to the ground, but I have to do it,” Mr. Vy said last week as he hammered pieces of wood into place for a concrete mold.

“I do not have any other skills apart from this. I stopped studying at grade three because my family is very poor,” Mr. Vy explained, adding he cannot afford to buy his own safety equipment on his pay of about $8 per day.

“I need a harness belt, boots, and helmet to protect my life.”

Around him, Phnom Penh is undergoing a massive building boom. Across the country, investment in construction has risen from $840 million in 2010 to $2.7 billion in 2013, according to the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction.

But the government has not been able to keep pace with the boom to ensure the safety of the sector’s workforce, which labor experts estimate at 175,000 to 200,000, many of whom are unskilled and paid by the day.

The Ministry of Labor, which is responsible for worker safety, does not have a safety code for construction workers or the buildings they work on. Instead, construction firms have been left to police themselves, and face no consequences for endangering workers’ lives, which are lost at an alarming rate.

In its 2011 to 2015 Decent Work Country Program for Cambodia, the International Labor Organization estimated that at least 1,500 workers died in 2009 of occupational accidents—roughly four people every day—with construction sites and brick kilns being the most dangerous work places in the country.

Last week, the Labor Ministry invited the Korea Occupational Safety and Health Agency to its headquarters to host a workshop and help the ministry draft regulations to hold construction companies accountable.

“The unsafe working conditions cause the accidents,” Leng Tong, director of the Labor Ministry’s safety department, said outside the workshop. “In Korea, the managers and companies are punished, but here that does not happen.”

Although companies are required to get a construction permit from the Land Management Ministry, which includes a promise to ensure worker safety and provide safety equipment, enforcement is nonexistent.

The 1997 Labor Law ostensibly guarantees safe work places for employees, including the provision of safety equipment, but says the Labor Ministry must establish a prakas, or ministerial proclamation, to enforce the law.

“We do not have the regulations to require the workers to wear safety equipment,” Mr. Tong said. “So far, we do not conduct inspections on high-rise construction sites.”

But it’s high-rise buildings—filled with condominiums and office space—that are springing up in Phnom Penh at a staggering rate.

In 2009, less than 100 condominium units were available in Phnom Penh, a number expected to grow to more than 6,000 by 2018, according to a July 2014 research report by realty group CBRE-Cambodia.

Mr. Tong said his inspectors have tried to enter condo construction sites in the past, but have always been turned away due to a lack of power.

“When we have gone, workers just say they are a subcontractor and cannot allow us on the site,” he said. “It’s hard to find out who’s in charge and responsible for the workers’ safety.”

Mr. Tong said he could not provide reliable statistics for the number of construction workers injured or killed per year because companies do not report accidents.

“On construction sites, accidents are high,” Mr. Tong said. “It’s very hard [to track accidents] because we get information mostly from the newspapers.”

It is only after lethal accidents occur, and are reported, that the government will potentially suspend construction and close a site temporarily, as was the case early this month when a support beam plummeted 12 stories and killed a woman driving by an Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation (OCIC) construction site next to Olympic Stadium.

After closure, an inspection is then carried out by the Land Management Ministry, not the Labor Ministry, to issue guidelines on making the site safer. The site is then allowed to reopen if those conditions are met.

No Penalties

Temporary closure is ostensibly the only punishment construction companies currently face from either ministry, according Mr. Tong and Huy Nara, director of the Land Management Ministry’s construction department.

“We will close the site, but step by step we do this,” Mr. Nara said in his office last week. “But you are right, we are lacking the penalties.”

Yi Kannitha, the deputy director of the Labor Ministry’s safety department, said the ministry has plans to introduce a prakas for construction worker safety some time next year, which will lead to inspections of large-scale sites.

“We [the Labor Ministry] have no right, we have no rights,” he said. “We lack laws on the construction sites. We cannot fine [companies] without laws. We cannot punish them because we have no laws or regulations.”

But Dave Welsh, country director for the Solidarity Center, a U.S.-based labor rights group, isn’t holding his breath for the ministry to take action.

“The Ministry of Labor is one of the least proactive ministries,” he said. “They have to be pushed on everything, especially in terms of enforcing worker protection.”

Mr. Welsh, who considers construction work “the most dangerous industry in the country,” said a prakas to enforce worker safety measures is being stalled because the government fears it would scare away investors.

“It’s money,” he said. “With every prakas that puts up labor costs, the rule of thumb from the government’s point of view is that it detracts from investment opportunities.”

Mr. Welsh added that the majority of construction workers risking their lives on the job are not insured in the case of injury or death due to a loophole in the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), which is supposed to compensate injured workers and families of workers killed on the job.

“The industry’s—and to an extent the government’s—take on it is that these are independent contractors or day laborers; they’re not actual employees,” he said. “That’s nonsense. Any payment is, in effect, a contract.”

At the construction site in Phnom Penh where Mr. Vy works, neither he nor the dozens of other workers there could name the company they were working for. All they knew was that a man named Thorn would be there at the end of the workday to pay them in cash.

Cheav Bunrith, director of policy for the NSSF, said companies are required by law to register with and contribute to the scheme, but only salaried employees are insured.

“The workers who are paid day by day are not registered,” he said, explaining that it’s up to individual workers to pay into the NSSF if they want insurance.

But workers like Dam Nang, 31, a general laborer who works with Mr. Vy, cannot afford coverage on his $5.20 daily income.

Mr. Nang, who is paid by the day, said he “dare not ask” for a contract or safety equipment for fear of losing his job.

“I am so scared to fall off the building,” said Mr. Nang, sitting in his makeshift bed on the first floor of the condominium building.

“When I look to the ground, the hair stands up on the back of my neck.”

Potential for New Land Concessions

20 Nov

By: Ven Rathavong, Khmer Time, 20 November 2014

Villagers look on as park rangers inspect intrusion by villagers into an economic land concession. (KT Photo: MoE Park Rangers, Bokor)

PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) –  New economic land concessions (ELCs) may be granted by the government under stringent new rules in the near future, if an ambitious plan by current ELC holders becomes a reality.

The scheme could result in villagers and ELCs cohabiting together without confrontation or land grabbing from each other.

Under the proposed plan, the government will map available state land which could be put up for auction. Satellite images will be used to identify the hectares  of land that can be cultivated,  availability of water sources, wetlands and forest reserves as well as existing villages, among others.

Only companies with a successful track record of managing ELCs, or multinationals with land development experience should be allowed to bid for the new ELCs, along with stand-alone companies with proven track record.

“These preliminary works such as satellite imageries and ground survey will incur costs, but they can be passed onto the winning bidder. This will ensure transparency and  minimize clashes with villagers,” said an ELC representative with a European based conglomerate.

“More importantly, it will boost Cambodia’s agricultural sector because another condition of the new ELCs will be the requirement for processing industries to be part of the bid.”

The ELC representative said that for too long, well connected businessmen and their cronies had been able to obtain ELC’s at low prices only to sit on them.

Many are more interested in making money out of timber, rather than developing the ELCs with crops such as  palm oil, rubber or sugar.

“Some have had their ELC for more than 10 years, had the concession revoked, only to be re-awarded  and then go through the whole process of evaluation again. In this scenario, the land may end up in a ‘free-for-all’ situation where villagers will swarm in and claim it as theirs,” said the representative.

“We have seen officials marking land without authorization for villagers based on the fact that it has banana plants and mango trees purportedly planted a year or so before, when the evidence shows clearly that the trees have been transplanted, practically overnight! Yet, they were marked for villagers at the local level, without the national level officials being informed or involved and, in many cases, even the ELC holders were not aware of the situation.”

The new plans for ELC’s follow similar calls for on shore oil concession blocks to be auctioned off, or for international bids to be allowed to ensure transparency.

But for the scheme to succeed legislation is needed, added the representative. At the moment, different ministries were not cooperating sufficiently. So, while the Ministry of Environment has announced the revocation of ELC’s for non-performance or abuse by the holders, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries has yet to clarify the status of ELC’s awarded by them.

“We are wondering why the Agriculture Ministry hasn’t followed the Ministry of Environment’s example and revoked ELCs that aren’t following the rules?”

Major companies like Sime Darby, Olam, and Carsons have also expressed interest in repeating their successful investments in Malaysia and Africa, but were concerned over the lack of clarity around ELCs. Sinochem’s rubber division, GMG Global, chose Africa over Cambodia.

“They moved to places like Cameroon and  Liberia instead, even though the risks are even higher than Cambodia. But they still invested there and also put money in downstream industries,” said the insider, who did not wish to be named.

The Cambodia Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that, since 1996, successive Special Representatives of the Secretary-General for human rights in Cambodia had expressed concern about the impact of economic land concessions on the human rights and livelihoods of rural communities.

Essential pre-conditions to the grant of concessions, such as the registration of land as state or private land, public consultations over environmental and social impact assessments have not been met.

Lawmaker Ho Vann of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) noted that while some ELC licenses had been revoked over concerns about their operations, more should be scrutinized. He said ELCs which do not provide benefits for the people and the country should be revoked.

“I think the proposal for bidding for ELCs is good, but there need to be conditions on the bids. Bids have to meet a required standard. If they don’t, it will simply create more corruption,” said Mr. Vann

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ELC’s owners, though, said that a successful ELC is a matter of implementation, execution and follow through of the master plan for development.

“Responsible concession holders do actually work on the land, building infrastructure which benefits the local villagers. The local community gains in terms of commerce and employment, gets medical and sanitary facilities, while the ELC holders spend millions of dollars while developing the concession and waiting for it to mature,” said one ELC owner.

“Not all concession holders want to get entangled with villagers. The villagers are on land the ELC holders have procured legally to develop and earn profits and generate employment. These are grassroots benefits which the people need and if carried out responsibly, will see tremendous improvements to the villages and suburbs in which they are developing.”

Whether the new proposals for ELCs will be implemented will depend on developments in the coming months. Concession holders are planning to form a working group to address the issues with the relevant ministries.

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