Environmental activists Global Witness on Monday denounced the government’s decision to censor its most recent report on illegal logging in Cambodia, saying the decision was an attempt to hide the truth.
Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that Cambodia would ban the report as it was a politically motivated attack on Prime Minister Hun Sen and retribution for the group’s expulsion from Cambodia in 2005.
However Khieu Kanharith said Monday he had requested that the Council of Ministers seek an investigation of Global Witness’ claims by Societe Generale de Surveillance, the government’s forest monitor that replaced Global Witness in 2003.
The 95-page report, released to international media attention Friday, accuses government officials and members of their families of environmental plunder and participation in a logging syndicate.
SGS Forest Project Manager Bob Tennent confirmed his company had been contacted but declined to comment on the report’s allegations.
“We have just at this point received information from the government and we are going to be having a preliminary meeting with them,” he said.
Global Witness Director Simon Taylor said in an e-mail from London that banning the report demonstrated the government’s unwillingness to address the information it contains.
“The government’s decision to ban our report and confiscate all copies is indicative of their reluctance to address the core issues,” he wrote.
“Instead of suppressing our report, would their energy not be better spent on a serious investigation into the report’s allegations in order to bring those responsible to account?”
Ty Sokhun, director of the Agriculture Ministry’s Forestry Administration, who is the subject of serious allegations in the report, angrily and categorically denied Global Witness’ charges on Monday.
“I don’t want to dignify those people,” Ty Sokhun said. “They are crazy.”
Ty Sokhun confirmed that Khun Thong, who is named in the report, is his father-in-law, but he said that neither Khun Thong nor any other of his relatives are connected to the logging industry.
“Global Witness lied on every page,” Ty Sokhun said, adding that the organization published the scurrilous report to attract attention and funding.
“The report is laughable,” he said.
Taylor defended Global Witness’ repeated attribution of serious allegations of wrongdoing to unnamed sources in the report.
“Many of our sources have taken great personal risks in order to give us information, and we have a duty of care to them to ensure that they are not singled out for retribution,” he wrote.
“It is a sad and damning testament to the declining space for civil society in Cambodia that such things are necessary,” he added.
Kompong Cham provincial governor Hun Neng, the premier’s brother, said on Monday that he was considering legal action agaist Global Witness over allegations made in the report against his wife, Leang Vouch Chheng, and his son, Hun To.
“If they come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken,” he added.
Contacted by telephone on Sunday, Hun To also took issue with Global Witness’ allegations.
“I haven’t done that. If they accuse me I’ll sue them. I would like to tell them that just by selling a plot of land in Phnom Penh I can be a millionaire,” he said.
In the report, Global Witness also called attention to the recent US decision to provide direct funding to RCAF, which the report accuses of involvement in illegal logging, including a network to transport illegal timber.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said Monday that the US was sympathetic to Global Witness and was ensuring its military aid would be used properly.
“The United States shares many of the concerns outlined in the Global Witness report, particularly about corruption in Cambodia and illegal logging practices,” he wrote in an e-mail.
“The United States closely monitors all assistance provided to Cambodia’s military through our assistance programs and makes every effort to ensure that it is used for the intended purpose,” he added.
SRP Secretary-General Mu Sochua said Sunday that she believed the report was credible.
“I will believe it until the government can prove otherwise,” she said.
“How can the government recover all the hectares that have been destroyed, and how can the government explain all the wealth of high-ranking officials?
“All you have to do is go to these areas and see the impact they have had on the environment, the communities, the economic development of Cambodia. We’ll never recover from it,” she added.