Armed Police Halt Dumping Protests
sihanoukville – Two top customs and inspection officials were suspended here and police were detaining a Phnom Penh shipping agent as the scandal over a suspected 3,000-ton toxic waste dump continued to unfold Monday.
Scores of military police and soldiers armed with assault rifles patrolled the streets of this coastal town Monday to prevent a third day of protests after demonstrations over the weekend turned violent.
Several hundred protesters, angry that potentially hazardous material had been allowed in the country, tried to enter town early Monday morning, but were discouraged by the patrols.
On Monday, a new customs director already was in place in Sihanoukville, replacing Som Phal, who had been suspended. Officials from the inspection agency Camcontrol said that its inspectors had been either suspended or “transferred” to Phnom Penh.
Reports that both the customs and Camcontrol directors had fled this coastal town could not be confirmed.
The two offices especially were tight-lipped about who might have been responsible for allowing the mercury-tainted sludge into the country. Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed Saturday to take the investigation into the dumping to the highest levels.
Police are detaining Sam Moeurn, the president of Muth Vuthy Import Export, the company suspected of importing the waste, the shipping agent’s wife confirmed Monday. However, she said her husband was only an agent and did not plan the shipment.
“My husband was arrested and sent to Sihanoukville on Friday,” the wife said. “[Police] are asking him for files. But my husband did paperwork only one time, and he has never done paperwork before.”
The shipment of 3,000 tons of 20-year-old industrial waste from Taiwan, discovered earlier this month, has fueled outrage, violent protests and the suspension of at least 20 officials.
Residents said the protests by more than 300 people over the weekend were fueled by radio and television reports about the danger and reports that some already were dead and ill.
Sihanoukville hospital officials confirmed that port worker Pich Savann, 30, had died over the weekend after suffering from a high fever. A laboratory in Phnom Penh will conduct a practical autopsy to determine if the case is related to the waste, a doctor said.
Government officials appealed for calm Monday as hundreds of residents reportedly evacuated the city.
Motorcycle taxi driver Keo Chea said he has seen hundreds of people flee the city by train, and others who could not get on the crowded train evacuate by taxi and bus.
Leak Sopheak, 37, a Navy official, said he bought bus tickets for his family to leave Sihanoukville after hearing a Cambodian-American radio commentator on pro-CPP Apsara radio suggesting residents evacuate the city temporarily.
“I will send my wife and three children to Phnom Penh until the situation of the waste is resolved,” he said. “We are very concerned about this.”
The Taiwanese company that shipped the industrial waste insists it is now safe, but Environment Minister Mok Mareth has insisted the waste, no matter how toxic, be sent back to Taiwan.
At the dump site behind a district military police post 15 km outside Sihanoukville, bulldozers had finished building mounds of earth around the mountain of waste, which looks like stones and dirt. A sign warned Cambodians to stay away, but as of early afternoon nothing had been done to the site to prevent it from contaminating the ground water in the case of heavy rain.
Bags to transport the waste back to Taiwan were stacked up inside municipal offices. Sok Phan, first vice chief of cabinet, said RCAF Battalion 44 soon will put the waste in the bags and containers to ship back to Taiwan. The Taiwanese company responsible for exporting the waste, Formosa Plastics, says the waste is not longer toxic and that there is “no way” the company will take it back. Tests on the waste have not been completed.
Mercury is a highly toxic heavy metal that it most commonly known for getting in water and food supplies and causing serious physical effects over time.
Mok Mareth appeared to try to clam fears on TVK Monday evening. “The beach and the sea water and the fisheries and the water quality and the air across Sihanoukville are not affected,” he said.
The house of First Deputy Governor Khim Bo was trashed and looted over the weekend, and his Land Cruiser set on fire. On Monday, his driveway was full of ashes and burnt debris, and his shell of a residence was guarded by a truck full of police.
Khim Bo wasn’t available for comment, but Sok Phan, the city deputy director, said he didn’t know why the deputy governor’s house was trashed. “He himself intervened on the case, to discus show to solve the problem,” Sok Phan said. “Everything in his home including his clothes were destroyed, so it must be someone’s vengeful act.”
In addition, the hotel containing Kamsab, the shipping agency controlled by the government, was virtually gutted by protesters over the weekend. Burnt debris was strewn across the road on Monday, and several of the 59 Kamsab employees were milling outside their offices in a daze.
One official, who refused to be identified, said that the bill of lading described the shipment from Taiwan as “cement cake.”
“We didn’t know what it was, because it’s never been imported into Cambodia before,” he said.
Other Sihanoukville officials professed ignorance or declined to talk about the case. New Sihanoukville customs director Pang Vantha, formerly a deputy customs director Koh Kong, said it was his first day on the job and he couldn’t comment on the case.
Khun Ussar, deputy director of Camcontrol, referred all questions to Phnom Penh. “I cannot talk about anything related to the inspection,” he said.