In 2010, more than 1,500 families in Kampong Speu’s Oral district were evicted from the land they had cultivated since the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 to make way for a Phnom Penh Sugar Company mega-plantation.
After years of campaigning, many of those families in recent weeks accepted compensation packages from the company, owned by Ly Yong Phat, a ruling party senator. While the money offered was minimal, the deals received the stamp of approval of Suon Bunsak, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a prominent umbrella NGO.
However, recipients, community leaders and NGOs have since raised concerns that the company – which has previously been accused not only of forced evictions but also using child labour – obtained the settlement agreements in a climate of bullying and coercion, and only after co-opting other community representatives, former NGO employees and even Bunsak himself.
While Bunsak in recent interviews strenuously denied being a bought man, inconsistencies in his accounting for his actions and his cosy relationship with the company leave questions as to his motivations.
According to Bunsak, CHRAC monitored the situation in Kampong Speu from 2010, when Yong Phat was handed an economic land concession (ELC) to establish the sugar plantation, until grant funding for the project ran out a couple of years later. However, he claims it was not until this year that he became personally involved at the invitation of Yong Phat.
Bunsak said Yong Phat asked him to monitor the Kampong Speu compensation process after being impressed with his work on the Chinese-owned Union Development Group land dispute in Koh Kong.
He maintained he initially declined to get involved and only started monitoring Kampong Speu on May 16 this year, when 157 families accepted payouts – almost all of them only $500 – in return for dropping all claims against Phnom Penh Sugar.
However, a photo posted on Facebook on April 11 – later taken down – shows Bunsak attending an earlier event on April 10 where dozens of families also accepted the $500 payout. In the photo, he sits at a high table facing the community, two seats away from Phnom Penh Sugar executive Sim Sitha.
Bunsak initially flatly denied attending the meeting, only conceding that he had been there in an unofficial capacity after having the scene described to him in detail. “It was my own trip . . . I was invited by Sitha just to see the area. I don’t count that as my work,” he said. “That was my private life.”
Bunsak said he only officially began working on the dispute when he received approval from CHRAC’s current chair, Adhoc’s head of land rights Latt Ky. Multiple requests for comment from Ky have gone unanswered.
Bunsak’s next verifiable visit to Kampong Speu after receiving Ky’s approval was the May 16 meeting that saw many families accept payouts. He told the Post he saw nothing but smiling faces after the meeting. “I don’t know how the company got the people there, but they were bringing smiles, they were coming happy,” he said at the time.
On May 27, 216 people took a convoy of minibuses from Kampong Speu to Phnom Penh. Their first stop was the offices of NGO Equitable Cambodia, which had been taking a firmer stance in representing and managing the claims of 681 displaced families.
There, community representatives personally delivered letters withdrawing their consent for the NGO to represent them in the dispute. A similar letter was delivered to the National Assembly that afternoon terminating their claims to any further redress after the majority of them had been given $500 compensation by the company.
Bunsak had sent out a text alert about the events to the media at sunrise that day. He said he had been alerted by a community member. Boeung Trabek commune police chief Neng Samoeurn confirmed that police had been deployed near the Equitable Cambodia offices from 6:30am that morning on the orders of unnamed superiors. Equitable Cambodia was not officially notified of the visit.
Both company representatives and community leaders present insisted that everyone’s attendance was voluntary, but many attendees told the Post they feared repercussions if they did not make the trip.
Phnom Penh Sugar’s Sim Sitha appeared on Ly Yong Phat-owned PNN News later that day. “I’m happy to see the people clearly understand their duties and obligations,” Sitha said.
Bunsak also joined Sitha on PNN to say he believed those who had accepted the $500 found it to be adequate. “I see that the people really participated and accepted compensation which they found acceptable,” he said.
In O’Tourng village in Oral district’s Trapaing Chor commune, Kong Ly, 55, who lost 5 hectares to the ELC, said she was told by Sitha on the day she accepted the $500: “It’s not OK for you not to go [to Phnom Penh].”
“I want to give the money back, but Sitha said if you want to give it back you have to pay $1,000, and will face some kind of punishment,” she continued. “Five hundred dollars is not equal to 5 hectares of land.”
Asked why she accepted the money in the first place, Ly said Sitha, along with community representative Chheng Sopheap and a deputy commune chief, told her it was a case of “accept it or get nothing”. Her comments were echoed by several others.
“The company said if we don’t accept $500 we’ll get nothing,” said a 56-year-old woman, also from O’Tourng, who asked not to be named. “I regret taking the $500 so badly that I can’t sleep. But there’s nothing I can do about it now.”
Sitha confirmed on Monday that the contract thumbprinted by recipients of the compensation included a clause requiring returned compensation to be paid back double, adding that they gave their thumbprints voluntarily and in the presence of their lawyer and community representatives.
Deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division Phil Robertson said in an email that the power dynamics between company and claimant weakened claims that compensation was accepted voluntarily.
“So when the company put $US500 compensation offers on the table, I’m sure that more than a few of the families saw this as a take it or leave it deal, and reflected on the political reality that those who oppose rich and powerful persons in Cambodia often end up penniless, beaten up, or dead,” he said. “What’s clear now is justice and accountability for the ‘blood sugar’ abuses of Ly [Yong] Phat and his cronies is a step farther away today.”
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Many of those familiar with the dispute have raised concerns about Bunsak’s involvement.
On May 2, Dr Ali al-Nasani – country director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation (HBF), a CHRAC donor – called Bunsak for a meeting. He later told the Post he called the meeting over concerns that there was a lack of transparency in CHRAC’s engagement with Phnom Penh Sugar, and that Equitable Cambodia – also a partner organisation to HBF – and CHRAC appeared to be getting involved on different sides of the same dispute.
Bunsak maintains that Equitable Cambodia executive director Eang Vuthy initially welcomed his involvement in resolving the dispute. “I call him my younger brother, Vuthy. He said: ‘Hey brother, go ahead’,” Bunsak recalled. Later, however, when he attempted to consult with Vuthy further, Bunsak maintained he was snubbed.
But Vuthy said Bunsak had never contacted him or the Sugar Justice Network before the first compensation meeting. “I never told him to go ahead without consulting the NGOs working on the case,” he said
On May 27, the day the claimants descended on the Equitable Cambodia offices, Bunsak was also summoned to a meeting by Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), another one of CHRAC’s donors. NPA staffer Lun Borithy, who was at the meeting, confirmed that Kampong Speu was raised “among general relationship concerns”, adding it was NPA policy not to discuss matters of a sensitive nature with the press.
Licadho director Naly Pilorge in an email described Bunsak’s involvement in the case as “questionable”.
Another senior locally based representative of an international NGO, who requested anonymity as they were not authorised to make statements to the media, was highly critical of CHRAC’s actions.
“The fact that CHRAC is very publicly validating this process suggests that they prioritise the interests of the company over those of the people,” they said. “Numerous colleagues within the NGO community have raised concerns with Bunsak over his engagement with the Phnom Penh Sugar Company, none of them has reported receiving a satisfactory explanation of his actions.”
Community representatives voiced similar concerns. Reporters who visited Kampong Speu last week were unable to find a single villager happy with their $500 payout.
“If he was a good person he wouldn’t be with bad people,” said Soeung Sokhom, 47, who lost 1.5 hectares to Phnom Penh Sugar in Trapaing Chor’s Plouch village. “He knows some people have 10 hectares and only get $500; it’s not right to call it compensation.”
“CHRAC worked with the company,” said Chay Kim Horn, also from Plouch, who lost 10 hectares. “If CHRAC is good and thinks of the people it will not work with the company.”
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There are also reports of the company attempting to pay community leaders to persuade their neighbours to take compensation deals.
“The company offered me $10,000 for my 10 hectares because I’m one of the founders of the community representatives,” said community representative Chay Kim Horn. “They wanted to buy me.”
Another community representative, Khon Khorn, from Kraing Tbeng village, said: “[Sim Sitha] asked me to adopt the same position as the company [on compensation]. He said if I adopted the company’s position I could demand greater compensation.”
Sitha declined to give an official comment on the allegations.No one admits to being a bought man, but Oral residents repeatedly fingered two people: Chheng Sopheap and Rin Sem.
Sopheap lives with his family in a small wooden house surrounded by sugar cane in Plouch. Originally Equitable Cambodia’s primary contact in the district, the NGO has since distanced itself from him. Many in Oral reported having either been directly intimidated by him or knowing others who had been.
“He used to be a focal point for Equitable Cambodia, now he forces people to accept the compensation saying: ‘If you don’t take it, you’ll get nothing’,” community rep Chay Kim Horn said. “Chheng Sopheap convinced the village representatives to work for the company and they all got higher compensation.”
Sopheap – who admitted negotiating a $1,000 settlement himself – denied working for Phnom Penh Sugar, insisting he only encouraged people to accept $500 for fear they would get nothing otherwise.
Rin Sem, also known as Son Sem, is another vocal supporter of the compensation deal who denies working for Phnom Penh Sugar. At the May 27 march on Equitable Cambodia and the National Assembly, he said he had received $5,000 – although previously he claimed he had been given just $500.
Community representative Soeng Sokhom said he believed Sem was working for the company. “He’s not working for the people, forcing them to accept compensation,” he said. “Phnom Penh Sugar Company bought him a 2015 Honda Dream.”
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Two former Equitable Cambodia employees have also been accused of working in Phnom Penh Sugar’s interests while claiming to be helping villagers.
Sao Seny is a lawyer who had previously been assigned by Equitable Cambodia to provide legal support to affected communities in Oral district. Since leaving the NGO he has, according to Oral residents and his own Facebook postings, taken on as clients over 300 compensation recipients in the district. Residents said he takes a 5 per cent cut of each claimant’s $500.
“He’s my lawyer, he’s a good lawyer,” said Sopheap, the community leader who negotiated $1,000 compensation for himself.
Seny did not respond to a request for comment. Chan Vichet, a former community liaison officer for Kampong Speu who left Equitable Cambodia last year, continues to visit the affected communities.
Community representative Chay Kim Horn said Vichet is now employed by Phnom Penh Sugar. “He used to be here strengthening the community, now he works at the company,” Horn said. Fellow community leader Soeng Sokhom said he saw Vichet at a compensation meeting earlier this year.
Vichet denied being employed by the company on Monday.
“I don’t know which grade you studied, but I want to tell you citizens have the right to go everywhere,” Vichet wrote in a message. “I could lodge a complaint for fake news against you.”
He went on to write that any questions about his character should be directed to rights group Licadho.
“Yes, we know him,” Licadho director Naly Pilorge wrote in an email. “I think it’s quite obvious from the outrageous amounts given to [Kampong Speu] communities by one of the most profitable companies in Cambodia that no one [there] is doing anything out of the goodness of their heart.”
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Despite ostensibly being brought in to monitor Phnom Penh Sugar, Bunsak pleads ignorance of the company’s alleged unethical practices. “I’m like a horse,” he said, miming blinders. “I don’t know what’s going on, but I can tell you they [the community] are not bringing crying [to meetings with the company].”
Meanwhile, he heaped praised on speeches by Ly Yong Phat’s son-in-law, the director of Phnom Penh Sugar.
“Seng Nhak said: ‘The sugar product is not only the product of the company, it is the product of the Oral residents because they have been made by Oral residents, and that’s true because they are the labourers’,” Bunsak recalled. “That means he gave them a good encouragement.”
“Their business is trying to reduce labour migrations from Cambodia. That’s a good idea, you should try to monitor that,” he advised a reporter.
Despite his effusive praise for what’s widely considered to be a flawed compensation process, Phnom Penh Sugar maintains Bunsak receives no compensation from them.
“The company cannot cover the NGO expense, since it will affect the objective principle of the process,” Seng Nhak wrote in an email late last month.
Bunsak also insisted he receives no payment in cash or kind from Phnom Penh Sugar. “That’s a rude question,” he said. “The honest answer is no.”