The government on Sunday ordered the seizure of all copies of a new report by environmental organization Global Witness that accuses top government officials and their family members of plundering the environment through an illegal logging syndicate.
The report, released via the Internet on Friday, levels accusations at Prime Minister Hun Sen and others in an attempt “to incite political problems, which is outside the organization’s work,” government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said in a statement.
“The suppression and confiscation of the report does not concern the freedom to publish and disseminate information, which the government strongly supports,” the statement said.
“This is taking a legal measure against members of a non-governmental organization who used the organization’s name to serve their political purpose,” the statement adds without specifying Global Witness’ supposed political motives.
In a sweeping indictment, the 95-page report, titled “Cambodia’s Family Trees: illegal logging and the stripping of public assets,” said a “kleptocratic elite” of officials and their kin is selling off Cambodia’s natural resources with blatant disregard for the law.
“Illegal logging is causing severe damage to Cambodia’s remaining forests,” the report states. “The last global forest cover survey by the [UN] Food and Agriculture Organization…found that Cambodia had lost 29 percent of its primary tropical forest over a five-year period.”
“In many cases illegal logging is taking place under the guise of legally dubious plantation developments and harvesting permits,” the report continues. “Many of these plantations and permits are being allocated to a small group of individuals who have close relations with senior politicians.”
The report had by Sunday garnered international media attention including a front-page mention in the July 2 issue of the International Herald Tribune and an 800-word report in The Wall Street Journal as well as coverage in the UK newspaper The Guardian and the US newspaper The Houston Chronicle.
“The report is not true. They didn’t ask the government for clarification,” Khieu Kanharith said by telephone Sunday, adding that those reading the report were not in trouble but that hardcopies would nevertheless be confiscated.
“The report aimed to take revenge on an individual since the government did not allow them to work,” he said, referring to the dropping of the group as the country’s independent forest monitors in 2003 and Cambodian authorities’ effective banishment of Global Witness from Cambodia in 2005.
Emailed requests for comment from the UK-based Global Witness were not immediately answered Sunday.
Those named in the report include Hun Sen’s first cousin Dy Chouch, also known Hun Chouch, his ex-wife Seng Keang and their alleged business partner Khun Thong, who Global Witness claims is related to both Agriculture Minister Chan Sarun and Forestry Administration Director Ty Sokhun.
While much of the report concerns matters that are already part of the public record in Cambodia, other sensitive claims are attributed to anonymous sources.
Details in one account of bribery listed in the report, in which individuals are named, are attributed to communications with “a researcher.” Other similar allegations are attributed to “a confidential source.”
The report, which Global Witness describes as the results of a two-year investigation, makes frequent mention of unsuccessful attempts to contact the Cambodian government officials and business leaders named.
The report also strays from allegations of illegal logging to more general allegations of criminality.
Attempts by reporters to contact many of those named by Global Witness were unsuccessful on Sunday.
Chan Sarun could not be contacted for comment and a man answering the telephone of Ty Sokhun said he was not Ty Sokhun.
Forestry Administration spokesman Thun Sarath declined to comment.
The report also names RCAF Brigade 70, the unit that supplies many of the prime ministerial bodyguards, and Hing Bunheang, chief bodyguard to Hun Sen and advisor to supreme Buddhist patriarch Tep Vong.
Contacted by telephone, Hing Bunheang denied the allegations on Sunday.
“I was not involved in this,” he said, adding that Global Witness had not contacted him for comment prior to the report’s publication.
The report also contains photographs that purport to show lumber shipments at Oknha Mong Port in Sihanoukville.
An executive at Mong Reththy Group-a company belonging to commodities tycoon and recent CPP Senate appointee Mong Reththy, who built and operates the port-denied that the company was involved in illicit exports.
“I guarantee our company does not even export one cubic meter of wood,” said Mong Reththy Group Vice President Tan Monivann, adding that the company could take legal action against Global Witness if the organization continued to defame it.
With cartoons, family photos and snapshots of its principal characters, as well as diagrams drawing a very tangled web of kinship, the report at times takes on a satirical tone.
Published less than two weeks before the annual meeting at which Cambodia’s foreign aid donors will pledge assistance to the government, the report also accuses international aid donors of apathy, if not indifference, to illegal logging in Cambodia.
“Donors have not used the leverage that this aid gives them effectively,” Global Witness states in the report.
“Specifically, they have refused to acknowledge the fact that the government is thoroughly corrupt and does not act in the best interests of the population.”
In a final illustration on the last page of the report, the organism “Elitus kleptocraticus” is defined as a species which “[O]nly responds to asset freeze. Normal habitats include lavish property developments but also often found in spas, banks and casinos.”
“Unfortunately,” the definition continues, “behavioral problems [of Elitus kleptocraticus] usually ignored by species Donorus pedestriensis.”
The government’s call for a ban on the report Sunday is only the latest confrontation with Global Witness.
In 2005, Customs agents at Phnom Penh International Airport confiscated 2,000 copies of a previous report by the group, entitled “Taking a Cut,” which accused senior RCAF officers of involvement in illegal logging in the Phnom Aural Wildlife Sanctuary in the Cardamom mountains.
The developments caused the organization to close its Cambodian office in September that year, the same month that Hun Sen declared Global Witness was “finished” in Cambodia.