An official sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen last month shows that wealthy and well-connected timber baron Try Pheap never handed back his two government-granted concessions in Virachey National Park as the Environment Ministry claimed he did in 2015.
In January last year, the ministry announced that it had canceled the contracts of 23 economic land concessions (ELCs) across the country that had violated their contracts, though it refused to give details. At the same time, it said three other ELCs were handed back by their owners voluntarily. It was billed as part of a sweeping review of concessions that Mr. Hun Sen ordered up in 2012 to root out wayward owners abusing the system.
Two of the three ELCs supposedly voluntarily handed back belonged to Mr. Pheap—the 9,709-hectare Try Pheap Import Export, and the 9,146-hectare MDS Thmodar Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a subsidiary of the businessman’s MDS Group. Both concessions sat inside Virachey National Park in the northeast corner of Ratanakkiri province, over what satellite images showed to be prime forest.
As more proof of its reform efforts, the government last month transferred control of 73 ELCs from the Environment Ministry to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. Mr. Hun Sen signed the sub-decree on April 28 to make it official.
On the list of ELCs being transferred to the Agriculture Ministry were Mr. Pheap’s two Virachey concessions, the same ones the Environment Ministry said Mr. Pheap had handed back last year. Not only were the concessions still running, one of them had even grown by 40 hectares. The other was listed at the same size as when it was supposedly canceled.
In January 2015, Srun Darith, Environment Minister Say Sam Al’s deputy cabinet chief, said Mr. Pheap had abandoned the two concessions because the soil in the area was barren.
Yesterday, Mr. Darith said the two ELCS were never canceled, only downsized.
“They still exist,” he said. “After he gave back about 20,000 hectares, [there] still remained about 5,000 hectares; that’s why we had to make a new map.”
Mr. Darith said the government agreed to let Mr. Pheap keep a piece of both concessions, which sit side by side, at the businessman’s request.
“In 2015, we mentioned about the companies that gave back ELCs to the government,” he said. “Some piece was left for the companies based on the agreement, and the government approved that…not the full size.”
To prove it, Mr. Darith provided part of an undated spreadsheet stating that Mr. Pheap’s two ELCs had been cut down to a total 4,000 hectares in November 2013.
That’s more than a year before the Environment Ministry claimed that both ELCs had been handed back in their entirety. On the 2015 list of canceled or returned ELCs, the ministry even provided a separate column for concessions that were reduced in size but not entirely canceled; Mr. Pheap’s concessions were not in that column.
Som Phany, the Try Pheap Group’s administration chief, declined to comment. The company’s deputy director for Ratanakkiri, Pol Visal, could not be reached.
The sub-decree Mr. Hun Sen signed last month was not the first sign that the Virachey ELCs were still up and running.
In June, a group of CNRP lawmakers traveling through the park to reach the Vietnam border returned with reports of activity on the ELCs and loggers illegally cutting down the surrounding protected forest in Mr. Pheap’s name. Though Mr. Pheap denied any connection to the loggers, the lawmakers wrote to Mr. Hun Sen urging him to investigate.
Son Chhay, one of the lawmakers who made the trip, said on Monday that their letter never received an official reply and that the resurrection of Mr. Pheap’s Virachey concessions ought to be investigated, possibly by the Anti-Corruption Unit.
“There must be regulations…. You cannot keep changing your mind,” he said. “I hope the decision [to return the concessions] is not because of corruption.”
“This is a case that needs to be investigated,” he said. “This land belongs to the people of Cambodia, not to the powerful people.”
ELCs have been responsible for much of the deforestation in Cambodia, which has suffered one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world since the turn of the century. The government claims that concessions are only granted in areas of degraded forest, but independent research shows that many of them actually cover prime forest, much of it inside nominally protected areas like Virachey.
Rights groups have accused some concessions of laundering illegally logged wood from outside their boundaries and pegged Mr. Pheap as a prime culprit.
Last year, Global Witness and the NGO Forum released the results of separate monthslong undercover investigations that reportedly found illegal loggers in Virachey moving large quantities of timber through Mr. Pheap’s properties in the province.
Despite the persistent allegations, which Mr. Pheap denies, the timber baron has maintained cozy relations with the government and Mr. Hun Sen, who counts the businessman among his personal advisers.
In 2013 and 2014, the government sold him thousands of cubic meters of timber seized from illegal loggers at bargain rates and even ordered ministries to give him first rights to buy more, in violation of legal provisions that the wood be sold at public auction.
In February, the IIC University of Technology decided to award Mr. Pheap an honorary doctorate in economics. On hand to personally deliver the framed diploma to Mr. Pheap at the school’s graduation ceremony last week was Mr. Hun Sen.