BATTAMBANG Province - Despite a government cancellation of commercial fishing lot permission across the expansive Tonle Sap lake, fishing communities here say bribery of corrupt local officials have meant the illegal practice is actually increasing.
The ban was meant to decrease the rapid overfishing of the lake, a major source of food for much of the country, which has seen its stocks dwindle in recent years.
Mao Penh, the head of a fishing community at the floating village of Preak Tol, in Koh Chiveng commune, Battambang provnce, told VOA Khmer that law enforcement officials are “colluding” with illegal fishing operations.
“One side takes money and closes its eyes, while the other goes illegally fishing,” he said, speaking from his floating home on the lake. “It’s fifty-fifty. That’s what’s happening in my village nowadays.”
With bribery such a common practice out here, he said, illegal fishing will never be reduced.
“When we are need the authorities to crackdown on an offense, they say they are busy,” he said. “For example, after we crack down on a few illegal places, we need them to deal with the rest. But when ask why they don’t do it, they say they are busy. So they get along well with each other.”
“In cases where they don’t get along well, [authorities] have so far destroyed [offenders’] fishing equipment,” he said.
Koh Chiveng commune comprises five floating villages and is home to more than 2,000 families. Four out of five families here depend on fishing for their daily lives.
Bun Peng, the commune chief, readily admits that bribery out here is a problem. He toold VOA Khmer there is no legal framework to enforce the ban on fishing. He then said he would “eradicate” the corrupt practices by the end of the year, without elaborating.
Meanwhile, local officials from the Ministry of Agriculture’s fisheries administration denied such corruption takes place.
Fisheries officials “are not involved with and do not collude with offenders,” Yuth Tan, deputy chief of fisheries for Preak Tol administration, told VOA Khmer. “No. There is none.”
And yet, illegal fishing occurs here. A visitor can see it happening. A Vietnamese fisherman who spoke Khmer told VOA Khmer recently said his group had paid a local official named “Ly” around $50 in exchange for a “permit” to use an illegal net hundreds of meters in length.
A nearby fisheries official named Mao Peng Ly denied he had taken money to allow the fishing to take place. “I do not know the offenders, and I was never involved with them,” he said.
In the gulf between what is happening and what fisheries officials say is happening are the local villagers who rely on fish to survive. These community members say they want the illegal practice stopped.
Long Sochet, head of the nationwide Coalition of Cambodian Fishermen, said the wider danger is that bribery begets bribery.
“If those committing [bribery], both the giver and the receiver, collude and enjoy their impunity,” he said, “others will follow suit.”