Cambodian NGO protesting land grab by government senator forced to close

Friday, October 13th, 2017

The Cambodian Interior Ministry has temporarily shut down a land rights NGO that was supporting communities engaged in a dispute with a firm owned by a government senator.

Equitable Cambodia received a suspension order on 28 September. It had been working with villagers in Thpong district whose land was leased to Phnom Penh Sugar, a sugarcane company owned by ruling party senator Ly Yong Phat. The firm is alleged to have evicted families from their homes and illegally cleared forest in a neighbouring protected area.

The closure order was based on alleged violations of a new piece of legislation, the Law on Associations and NGOs (Lango). It also cited complaints made by villagers from the affected area, who accused Equitable Cambodia of misleading local communities. However, other villagers praised the work of the NGO, claiming the protesters had been paid off by the sugarcane company.

Image: A sugarcane concession in Cambodia. Photo courtesy of Mongabay.

Phnom Penh Sugar’s director, Andy Seng, insisted that it had nothing to do with the NGO’s closure. “The company has never submit[ted] any complaint for closing down the NGO,” he told the Phnom Penh Post.

Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch, said the order proved that the government intended to use Lango “in an arbitrary fashion”. “The telling point is the involvement of Senator Ly Yong Phat, which indicates the real story is this land rights NGO strayed too close to the corrupt core of the ruling party,” he told the Phnom Penh Post.

In 2010 and 2011, Phnom Penh Sugar and a second firm owned by Senator Ly Yong Phat were awarded three adjacent concessions, two in Thpong district and a third in neighbouring Aoral district. The concessions encompassed a total of 23,000 hectares, easily exceeding the maximum 10,000 hectares stipulated in Cambodian regulations.

Around 1,500 families in Thpong district were evicted from land they claimed as their own and resettled nearby, to make way for sugar plantations. Satellite imagery showed that most of the land in the concessions was by then cleared of trees and planted with sugarcane. The firm had also cleared beyond the boundaries of its concession and into the Aoral Protected Area.

Satellite image showing clearing in Aoral Protected Area by a firm owned by Senator Ly Yong Phat. Image courtesy of Inclusive Development International.