In a letter to King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen hailed the massive Pheapimex concession in Pursat and Kompong Chhnang provinces as a “new, landmark event” for Cambodia and blamed the opposition and NGOs for inciting villagers to protest against it.
“The continuous protests against Pheapimex in Kompong Chhnang and Pursat were not the result of the people’s own will,” Hun Sen wrote in the letter dated Feb 24.
The premier’s letter was in response to a letter the King sent on Feb 11, which was prompted by complaints he received from villagers earlier this year.
Villagers have been protesting against the massive plantation for months, saying the 315,000-hectare concession is illegal and threatens their way of life.
The protests came to a head Nov 12 when hundreds of villagers rallied about 5 km from the site. That night, eight were wounded in a grenade attack.
“The grenade attack was only aimed at blaming the government or the local authorities,” Hun Sen wrote, “because…the grenade attack (in which some people were injured and nobody died) was just aimed to make their propaganda voices louder.”
No arrests have been made but the premier said authorities are still investigating.
Hun Sen said it is the villagers who are encroaching on the state land, though authorities are working to exclude from the concession villagers’ land and keep some forest areas for them.
He went on to say the area is a degraded forest, as stated in a report from the government’s forestry monitor SGS released last month, and is only suitable for a plantation operation.
“Most of the land is sandy and unfertile…except for trees such as eucalyptus and acacia,” he wrote.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay dismissed Hun Sen’s allegations that the Sam Rainsy Party and NGOs were behind the protests. “We have never done that,” he said. “People come to us asking for help.”
Marcus Hardtke of Global Witness said the letter “really displays ignorance and arrogance.”
“I think Hun Sen should fire the adviser who wrote it,” Hardtke said.