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Rights Groups Criticize UN as Montagnards Return to Vietnam

9 Oct

Source: cambodiadaily | October 09, 2015

As 24 Montagnards returned to Vietnam on Thursday after Cambodia refused to process their asylum claims, rights groups criticized the U.N.’s refugee agency for assisting the government in repatriating the group to a country where they claim to have fled from persecution.

The U.N. has said that more than 200 Montagnard asylum seekers have come to Phnom Penh over the past year, and are being taken care of by an NGO with the government refusing to process their applications.

Last month, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that all of the Montagnards in Cambodia—with the exception of 13 who were granted refugee status in March—had three months to return to Vietnam, or would be forcibly sent back.

Chea Bunthoeun, deputy Ratanakkiri provincial police chief, said Thursday that 24 Montagnards crossed the border at the O’Yadaw International Checkpoint into Vietnam’s Gia Lai province at around 8 a.m., claiming they “missed” their homeland.

Vivian Tan, regional spokeswoman for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the group had voluntarily returned to Vietnam, and that Hanoi had assured the agency “verbally and in writing” that the group would not face punishment upon returning.

“UNHCR accompanied the group of 24 back to Viet Nam’s Central Highlands today. We will be visiting some of them and some from the previous group of returnees to find out how they are doing,” Ms. Tan said via email.

“UNHCR’s stance remains that everyone wishing to seek asylum, including those from Viet Nam’s Central Highlands, should be able to access the national asylum procedure in Cambodia and be given due process,” she said.

“That UNHCR facilitates the return of people who voluntarily choose to return to their home country does not contradict the aforementioned.”

Human rights activists, however, criticized the UNHCR’s decision to assist the Cambodian government in repatriating the Montagnards to Vietnam.

Andrea Giorgetta, head of the Asia Desk at the International Federation for Human Rights, called Hanoi’s claim that it would not discriminate against the Montagnards “laughable” due to the well-documented evidence of abuse against the group.

“The UNHCR must fully exercise its protection mandate and ensure that the Montagnards who fled to Cambodia will not be sent back to Vietnam to face persecution,” Mr. Giorgetta said via email.

“The Vietnamese government’s assurances that the Montagnards will not be ill-treated are laughable,” he added. “The Montagnard asylum seekers are stuck between two abusive governments, whose statements should never be taken at face value.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, accused the UNHCR of legitimizing the government’s violation of the Refugee Convention through its involvement in the repatriation.

“UNHCR should be standing a hundred miles away from this entire process because by its involvement, it’s sending precisely the wrong message that these returns are okay,” Mr. Robertson said in an email.

“This is a deja vu moment, we’ve seen these types of returns of Montagnards before with Cambodia, Vietnam and UNHCR involved and guess what—it didn’t end well for the Montagnards,” he said.

Human Rights Advocate Summoned Over Defamation Charges

9 Oct

Source: cambodiadaily | October 09, 2105

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court attempted to summon prominent human rights activist Ny Chakrya on Wednesday for questioning over charges of defamation and coercing judicial officials, but found only his wife at home.

The court and Mr. Chakrya, the head of monitoring for rights group Adhoc, are of different minds over whether he is now obliged to heed the summons.

The charges, which also include malicious denunciation, stem from public comments Mr. Chakrya made in May that a judge and a prosecutor had unlawfully arrested and imprisoned two farmers feuding with an agriculture firm near their village in Siem Reap province.

Mr. Chakrya was first questioned by the court over the allegations on July 13 and was charged hours later. The summons authorities attempt to deliver on Wednesday was the first time since then that he has been called to court.

But the rights advocate, who denies any wrongdoing, said Thursday that he was not at home when police arrived with the letter. He said he told his wife over the telephone not to accept it, and to tell the police to deliver it to his office instead.

“I asked the police to take the summons back to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and to please send it to the Adhoc office, because this case involves the association,” he said. “If I receive the summons officially, I will go to answer the court’s questions.”

However, Investigating Judge Veng Hourt, who issued the summons, said the rights advocate should consider the summons served.

“If he has heard about the summons, he should go to the court to give answers,” he said.

Garment Sector Minimum Wage Raised to $140

9 Oct

Source: cambodiadaily | October 09, 2015

The government set the new monthly minimum wage for the country’s multibillion-dollar garment industry at $140 Thursday—up from $128—after months of tough negotiations that failed to bring employers and unions even close to a consensus.

The decision follows a $28 raise to the minimum wage in January and came after a morning vote by the Labor Advisory Committee (LAC) for $135, a figure that Prime Minister Hun Sen promptly bumped up to $140.


“Today we decided on $135,” Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng told reporters. “This is a reasonable number, although we could not meet the requests of each party. The unions are unhappy and employers complained while other parties said it was unreasonable.

“But we have no choice because our increase was based on seven factors,” he said. “In addition to the $135, the prime minister added $5 more, so the minimum wage for 2016 will be $140.”

The new wage takes effect on January 1.

In the midst of the negotiations, factory owners had warned that a raise higher than the current inflation rate of about 3.5 percent would devastate the garment industry, one of the main drivers of Cambodia’s economy. The industry employs some 700,000 people, makes up 80 percent of the country’s export earnings and accounts for a third of the country’s gross domestic product.

But the labor minister sought to assure employers that an extra $12, which raises the current minimum wage by more than 9 percent, would keep Cambodia competitive with its main rivals.

“This [raise] is the result of scientific study and I believe there will be no impact for the investors,” Mr. Sam Heng said. “$140, compared with some of our neighboring countries, makes us higher, so there could be some competitiveness issues. But we have our strong points to attract investors.”

Those strengths, the minister argued, included the peace of mind investors will have knowing that the people making clothes for them are earning a decent wage.

According to the latest data from the International Labor Organization (ILO) on minimum wages in Asia’s main garment exporters, Cambodia still ranks near the bottom at $140, well above Bangladesh and Sri Lanka but roughly on par with Vietnam, where the minimum wage ranges from $100 to $146 depending on the region. Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand are higher still.

Heading into Thursday’s meeting of the LAC—comprised of 14 government representatives and seven each from the factories and unions—the factories refused to go any higher than $133. But when it came time for the committee to vote, all of their representatives cast their ballots for the government’s proposal of $135, which won all but four of the votes.

“The employers’ seven representatives on the LAC supported it because the government, with the support of the ILO, studied the number carefully, so we can accept it,” said Nang Sothy, one of the seven factory representatives.

Ken Loo, secretary-general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia, which represents all exporting garment factories, said employers would pay their workers the $140 the prime minister bumped the wage up to.

But unless worker productivity increases and buyers start paying more for their orders, he said, “there’s only one solution, which is factories have to close, so it’s not whether we are happy or not happy.”

Mr. Loo said some factories unable to cope with the last raise had closed already, and warned that they were “just the tip of the iceberg” if current trends continued.

“We don’t hope for it to happen,” he said. “Maybe productivity will increase and buyers will pay more and factories don’t have to close, but we don’t expect it.”

The latest government data shows that export growth is slowing, but still strong.

Two of the representatives on the LAC abstained from Thursday’s wage vote. The two independent union leaders on the committee, Ath Thorn and Ken Chhenglang, said they voted for $160.

During the negotiations, Mr. Thorn, who heads the largest independent union in the country, warned of mass strikes if the workers were not happy with the new minimum wage.

After Thursday’s announcement, he declined to say whether $140 was worth striking over and said that several of the unions would meet before deciding how to respond.

“After Pchum Ben, we will announce how we will protest and advocate on this issue; we have not decided yet,” he said.

Most of the independent unions gradually whittled their wage proposal down to $160 during the negotiations after starting out at $207, the median monthly expense of more than 700 garment workers surveyed for a recent study commissioned by labor rights groups. According to the same study, their median monthly take-home pay—including overtime, bonuses, and allowances for food and transportation—was $191.

The survey also found that the vast majority of workers were unhappy with the $128 minimum wage and were expecting the government to settle on a new number between $160 and $180.

The government’s failure to meet workers’ wage demands in December 2013 sparked nationwide strikes and demonstrations that briefly crippled the industry and ended the next month when military police shot into a crowd of protesting workers in Phnom Penh, killing at least five of them.

Walkout at wage talks

8 Oct

Source: phnompenhpost | October 08, 2015


Tripartite talks over next year’s minimum wage for the garment sector came to a tense conclusion last night, as four independent unions walked out before a secret ballot was held to vote on a figure to submit to the government’s wage-fixing Labour Advisory Committee.

The boycott meant that the highest number of votes from the 48-member working group – which counts 16 members each for the government, union and employer sides – went to the employer’s $133 figure, which garnered 16 votes, while the government recommendation of $135 received 15 votes and the unions’ targeted $160 received only 13 votes. The current minimum wage stands at $128.

However, all three figures will be presented to the Labour Advisory Committee today for consideration as it attempts to determine next year’s final minimum wage, according to a government paper released after the meeting.

Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he walked out because the result was predetermined, largely due to the influence of pro-government unions.

“We are sure some unions are favourable to the Cambodian government,” he said. “They are not working in workers’ interests.”

The other three unions that walked out were the Cambodian Alliance Trade Unions, Collective Union of Movement of Workers and the National Independent Federation Textile Union of Cambodia.

Employers condemned the walkout as “irresponsible” and damaging to the tripartite process. “It’s extremely disrespectful to the [LAC],” said Ken Loo, secretary general of the Garment Manufacturers Association in Cambodia.


“On Monday, we spent a good two hours [with the unions] going through the internal rules, hashing it out. I didn’t hear any objections then.”

One independent union also expressed consternation at the move, saying it resulted in employers and the government gaining more votes.

“Four union leaders walked out before the vote while only 12 unions voted, but we are surprised that we got 13 votes, so I think that one vote is from government,” said Fa Saly, president of the National Trade Union Coalition.

“I regret seeing them leave while thousands of workers are waiting to see a good result and expecting to see the higher wage we are demanding for them, so we are sorry to see it.”

However, William Conklin, country director of the US-based Solidarity Center, said the process of the minimum wage talks was largely “scripted” anyway, since it was the government alone which ultimately decides on a figure.

He added that the government’s decision to set the wage before the Pchum Ben holidays showed the government cared more about “cooling off any emotions” than reaching a genuine consensus.

During the same process last year, the government and employers’ sides tied for the most votes, with both their numbers – and not the unions’ – being forwarded to the LAC.

The LAC then decided on its own figure, which was subsequently upped by Hun Sen, creating an outcry from both unions and employers, although mass strikes were avoided.

A show of force from unions did occur yesterday, when thousands of workers from 60 factories stood in front of their workplaces before noon to push for a living wage as part of the International Decent Work Day, according to the Cambodian Labor Confederation, a coalition of independent unions.

The gatherings had a particular emphasis on pressuring foreign brands, with workers brandishing posters declaring “Brands must provide a living wage for workers!” and “End corporate greed!”

“We did not create problems or affect public order. We just held posters and stood in front of factories,” said Preap Munysovann, secretary general for the Collective Union of Movement of Workers.

Police Block Marchers on World Habitat Day

6 Oct

Source: cambodiadaily | October 6, 2015

More than 1,000 demonstrators from about 50 communities across the country gathered Monday to mark U.N. World Habitat Day and protest against widespread land and housing evictions, but found their march blocked by municipal authorities, who claimed the protesters posed a risk to security.

Beginning the march at around 9 a.m. in the former Dey Krahorm neighborhood—the site of a violent forced eviction in 2009—the protesters, led by a group carrying a large model wooden house, walked to the nearby National Assembly, pausing for around 30 minutes as four representatives delivered a petition to lawmakers inside.


Carrying banners that included the slogans “No Home, No Land, No Life,” and “Land and Housing Protesters are not Colour Revolutionists,” those assembled then attempted to march toward Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home near Independence Monument, but were blocked by more than 100 municipal police and military police officers who had set up a barricade at Siha­nouk Boulevard.

Undeterred, the marchers doubled back on National Assembly Street to proceed to the ministries of interior and land management to submit petitions, but were once again halted—this time by a police barricade near the Australian Embassy.

Confined to the area in front of the National Assembly building, the demonstration wound down about an hour later.

“The government used the barricades to block the road to prevent the people from giving their opinion because they were seriously criticizing human rights abuses,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Licadho, which helped organize the event.

“We twice tried to ask permission from Phnom Penh City Hall to hold the event, but they told us that the letter was wrong and they returned it to us to make repeated corrections,” he added.

Deputy Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng said the demonstrators were not allowed to continue because the march was not only a nuisance, but also a danger to the public.

“We did not allow those people to march because we were worried about traffic jams,” Mr. Sreng said, adding that authorities were also “afraid that some bad people could hide in the crowd and toss a grenade.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said despite the number of marchers assembled Monday, the government would pay little heed to the protest, accusing the rights groups involved in organizing the event of having ulterior motives.

“I understand that people celebrating World Habitat Day today just wanted the international community to see that land disputes still happen in Cambodia but [the organizers] don’t have any real intention to demand a solution from the government,” Mr. Siphan said, claiming that most of the country’s land disputes had already been resolved.

“I think that the protest activities are not effective because the event was just organized by some organizations that are doing it for other advantages,” he said. “We are not accusing them of creating a problem, but they have an agenda behind their work.”

Ee Sarom, director of urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, which helped organize Monday’s activities, said Mr. Siphan’s accusations were “completely wrong.”

“He has always rejected the truth,” Mr. Sarom said.

“They are the real people affected by the land-grabbing, the use of forced evictions—especially the people from the provinces,” he added. “They come with their husbands, they come with their wives, they come with their children because they want to show the government this is the problem they are facing.”

Mr. Sarom said that while the NGOs did arrange for food and transportation at the march for those coming from the provinces, it was only because these people were “very poor and evicted.”

“They want to have a chance to talk to the government in Phnom Penh,” he said.

Sam Thom, a 65-year-old protester who is among a group of villagers in Kompong Chhnang province embroiled in a longstanding land dispute with KDC, a development firm owned by the wife of Mines and Energy Minister Suy Sem, said Monday that she would return to her province feeling let down.

“Before leaving home to be here, I had a strong hope that when we joined the march, we would get a resolution from the government,” she said. “But when I am here I know the government has no intention to help the people.”

More than 1,000 logs confiscated

21 Sep

Source: phnompenhpost | September 21, 2015


Foresty officials raided two locations in Mondulkiri province on Friday, confiscating more than 1,000 logs from suspected illegal timber dealers.

Seak Nal, a village representative, said the owners of the allegedly illegally felled timber, however, have not yet been apprehended.

“The timber is mixed, including first grade to [luxury species] such as thnong and neang nuon,” said provincial forestry official Keb Kort.

“We estimate there are about 1,000 logs, which we have just transported to our office. We are transporting more now.”

The owners of the timber are known to police, he added, but were not at the raided locations over the weekend.

Kort declined to name the suspected timber dealers.

Many of the traders have in the past been connected to local officials and members of the security forces, who allegedly provide protection.

Provincial deputy prosecutor Sou Sovichea said the two sites were unlicensed.

A recent analysis of satellite images by the World Resources Institute suggested that Cambodia has experienced the fastest acceleration of forest loss globally since 2001.

Locals block gold exploration

21 Sep

Source: phnompenhpost | September 21, 2015


Fearing the loss of their water source, hundreds of villagers of the Jarai ethnic minority last week continued to block an Australian gold mining company from accessing a plot of land in Ratanakkiri’s Andong Meas district that is licensed for exploration.

Angkor Gold Company, which first attempted to explore the area in 2013, held several meetings with villagers earlier this year to try and ease tensions.

According to Klan Doeun, a 35-year-old community representative for the villages of Se Mlou, Kate and Bakham, some 135 families held banners decrying mining development and blocked access to a 1-square-kilometre plot of land the company wants to explore over environmental degradation concerns.

“We do not want the company to enter because it will affect our crops and natural resources.

The company might not understand about our community, so we are afraid of its presence,” he said, citing concerns of chemicals running into the local stream that villagers rely on for water.

“We use the water from the stream. It is alright if we are poor as long as we have natural resources and forest,” Doeun said.

The land in question is currently a mix of pasture, farms and community forest, and while Angkor Gold has assured villagers they will be compensated for damages, Doeun said a lack of understanding and knowledge is also driving opposition.

Ma Samath, a representative of Angkor Gold, said the company, local authorities and NGOs have met with community members in order provide information on the exploration project, which is licensed by the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

“We have a licence from the ministry, but the people protest against us. The company and authorities discussed and explained many times to make them understand,” he said.

The company, which employs members of the community, has a policy “to prevent the human rights violations of [the villagers]”, Samath continued.

In late August, Angkor Gold filed a request for intervention with the ministry to resolve the matter. Ministry spokesman Meng Saktheara said he was aware of the situation but has not yet seen the company’s written request.

“This case has happened for a long time . . . We wait to witness whether it filed [a request] or not,” he said, adding that ministry policy is to inspect the site and hold discussions to promote cooperation.

Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator of rights group Adhoc, said that the protest occurred because the community has experienced previous land, forest and human rights abuses from companies operating on concessions in the area.

Rights NGO worker held over UDG protest

21 Sep

Source: phnompenhpost | September 21, 2015


An NGO worker was detained on Friday after participating in a roadblock by Koh Kong province’s Poy Chorpun community to protest the activities of the Chinese firm Union Development Group (UDG).

Community representative Prak Thorn said locals were joined by some 200 demonstrators from nearby Preah Sihanouk province to block UDG road access in order to pressure authorities to resolve an ongoing land dispute with the company.

The protest had been scheduled to continue until Saturday in anticipation of a visit by UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Rhona Smith, but a 50-strong coalition of authorities intervened to disperse demonstrators.

“The [police] deployed a lot of forces armed with batons, so we decided to retreat,” he said.

Suth Piseth of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force confirmed that he was detained for nine hours and asked to sign an agreement to stop leading the community blockade or face court action.

Kiri Sakor District Governor Khem Chandy denied that any civil-society staff had been arrested, calling the incident an invitation for questioning about an unlicensed demonstration.

“The protest must be conducted in a peaceful fashion, not defying law through activities such as road blocking,” he said. “Therefore, we were compelled to use force to dissolve it.”

He added that ministries and local authorities are working to solve the land dispute.

The Koh Kong province co-ordinator of rights group Licadho, Ing Kongchit, said he considered the authorities’ actions an obstruction of freedom of expression.

Storms rage on in parts

21 Sep

Source: phnompenhpost | September 21, 2015


Rainstorms have battered coastal areas and the Kingdom’s northwest, leaving hundreds of homes flooded and thousands of hectares of crops underwater, a disaster management official said yesterday.

Battambang province was the worst hit, with at least one death reported and some roads blocked by floodwaters, according to national and local officials.

“The storm hit the four provinces at the coast and four provinces in the northwest,” said Keo Vy, cabinet director and a spokesman for the National Committee for Disaster Management (NCDM).

“The provinces nearby the sea are Koh Kong province, Preah Sihanouk, Kampot and Kep province. The four provinces in the northwest that also flooded are Battambang, Pailin, Banteay Meanchey and Pursat.”

Vy attributed the heavy flooding in Battambang to runoff from across the Thai border.

“Rainfall and water that flowed down from Thailand caused 757 houses to be flooded in Kamrieng and Bavel districts,” Vy said. “The authorities moved nine families to a place of safety. There were 9,839 hectares of cassava flooded, which might be damaged, and some roads were cut off.”

A teenage girl was also reported to have drowned in Battambang’s Bavel district.

“A 13-year-old girl died this morning when she went to swim under her house when her mother was not at home,” said Sar Sary, chief of Bavel district’s Bavel commune. “Her house flooded until the water came up the stairs.”

Sary went on to say that he was optimistic that farmers’ crops now underwater could be saved.

“We cannot know if their paddies are damaged because the water started to go down little by little. It would be better if the water went down quickly,” he said. “I think if there is no rain for two days, the water will go down quickly.”

In Koh Kong province, 245 houses were damaged and six destroyed completely, while in Kampot province 4,381 families were affected by flooding and 2,291 hectares of rice were submerged.

Three districts and one town were flooded in Preah Sihanouk province, where one home was totally destroyed, 75 houses suffered damage to their roofs and four boats sank.

However, according to Ian Thomas, technical adviser to the Mekong River Commission, the heavy rain is unlikely to signal an end to drought conditions, which have blighted crops in large parts of the country since 2014.

“Cambodia has to be ready for more extreme weather as a result of the El Niño in the Pacific,” he said. “When El Niño peaks around January, I expect even more severe drought in parts of Cambodia than the previous year.

The beginning of next year is going to be very bad for dry-season crops.”

But not every province will be affected.

“It’s not a consistent picture,” Thomas said. “Pursat and Battambang are the driest provinces, but Prey Veng and Svay Rieng are OK.”

Thomas added that the current El Niño, a climate event that occurs roughly every five years, is the strongest NASA has ever seen and the space agency has nicknamed it “Godzilla”.

Extreme weather could soon lead to an increase in the price of rice.

“In the drought of 2014, the price of rice fell because of Thai rice subsidies,” Thomas said. “But the IRRI [International Rice Research Institute] has just issued a warning that drought conditions have been so bad across Asia due to El Niño, the price of rice will go up.”

The current El Nino is expected to end next year, bringing some relief to farmers.

“I am hopeful that in February to March the El Niño will dissipate, but it will take a few months for weather to get back to normal,” Thomas said.

HAGL makes deal with villagers

21 Sep

Source: phnompenhpost  | September 21, 2015


A “major breakthrough” has been reached in discussions between Vietnamese rubber giant Hoang Anh Gia Lai and 11 indigenous communities in Ratanakkiri province that have lost land and resources to the company’s plantations.

During a three-day meeting with community representatives, NGOs and its own subsidiaries, the firm, commonly referred to as HAGL, reiterated its pledge “not to carry out any further clearance or development” in these areas before making a slew of additional commitments to the affected villages, according to a joint statement issued by the participants on Saturday.

The two sides have been embroiled in a years-long dispute over economic land concessions (ELCs) run by subsidiaries of HAGL, which residents claim have encroached on land that they legally own and depend on for their livelihoods.

Among the allegations, HAGL is accused of widespread deforestation outside of its concession boundaries, polluting streams with chemicals used in its plantations and even sexual abuse.

Commitments made in last week’s talks included repairing and maintaining roads and bridges that have been damaged by its operations, and only using chemical products that comply with environmental regulations.

HAGL also agreed to organise joint visits to each of the 11 affected villages with local authorities, NGOs and other relevant stakeholders to determine whether it has encroached on community land. If violations are found, HAGL will “offer compensation” or “return the land to the community”, the statement adds.

The pledges follow a landmark agreement last week with three other indigenous communities – Ket, Nay and Kachout villages – which lie within HAGL ELCs but had not yet been directly affected by encroachment.

The company apologised to all 14 communities for the impacts of its operations, and offered representatives of each village a 400-kilogram cow and $500 “as an offering for their spirits”, the statement says.

It also agreed to restore affected water sources and to “adopt an operational grievance mechanism in relation to their agribusiness operations in Cambodia”.

Sal Hleuy, 60, a representative of Kachout village, said he was “happy” with the outcome of the talks but “would like to see all of the promises on paper and their actions afterwards”.

Representatives of HAGL could not be reached yesterday.

Last year, the firm said it was looking to expand its agricultural operations in the Kingdom. In 2013, the group came under fire when NGO Global Witness published a damning report on Vietnamese rubber concessionaires in Cambodia, which alleged that HAGL held land through its subsidiaries totalling about 47,000 hectares – almost five times the legal limit.

Eang Vuthy, executive director of Equitable Cambodia, said last week’s negotiations marked a “positive step forward” for the dispute’s resolution.

“This is a good result and we hope that the company will follow [through on] their commitments, continue to engage and make further progress.”


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