Leading environmental activists and groups have called on the government to prevent recently-sanctioned Cambodian nationals, Kun Kim and Try Pheap, from further exploiting the country’s natural resources for personal gain.
General Kun Kim, who is a senior minister and the deputy head for a veterans’ association, and timber tycoon Try Pheap were sanctioned by the United States Treasury Department earlier in December, under the stringent Magnitsky Act.
The targeted sanctions completely block all transactions in property and financial interests within the U.S. or even linked to a U.S. national. This means assets freezes, travel restrictions and curtailed financial transactions.
Environmental activists argue that Kun Kim and Try Pheap have amassed ill-gotten wealth from exploitation of Cambodia’s natural resources and should be stopped from further abuses.
Ouch Leng, director of Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, said the Cambodian government had so far focused on lower level officials and business interests when it came to cracking down on forest crimes.
But, he said, more influential entities and individuals were never held accountable for similar actions, and were continuing to enrich themselves and their families at the expense of public interest.
“Oknha [tycoons] who have long been involved in illicit timber trade are the same people with the same faces,” said Ouch Leng.
“We would like to ask the government to take actions against the companies who are still continuing their [timber trafficking] activities,” said the activist, who won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Award in 2016.
The two sanctioned individuals have long been criticized by rights groups and activists for the activities of companies linked to them, which have engaged in environmental crimes.
The Treasury Department announcement points to Try Pheap’s “large-scale illegal logging” operations that involved bribing national park officials to keep his illicit activities a secret.
Environmental watchdog Global Witness in the past has documented in its investigations how Try Pheap controlled a multimillion dollar timber trade, destroying forests with the complicity of government, military and police officials.
For Kun Kim, Global Witness pointed to his links with the Malaysian GAT International logging company, which had two of its timber concessions revoked after its illegal logging activities had been exposed.
In its “Dirty Dozen” report, rights group Human Rights Watch states that Kun Kim has used his political and military influence to make money from illegal logging activities Army Military Regions 2 and 4.
In 2018, NGO Forest Trends reported that $173 million in sawn timber had been exported to Vietnam in 2017, a major destination for Cambodia’s illicit logging activities. The government has fervently refuted these export numbers, even when the data was accessed from Vietnam customs statistics.
Seng Sok Heng, coordinator for the Prey Lang Community Network that prevents illegal logging in protected forest area, said there was evidence of corruption and illicit financial gains and that domestic action was warranted.
“All ill-gotten or corrupt assets need to be confiscated and they should be taken back as state assets based on the Cambodia’s Law on Anti-Corruption,” said Seng Sok Heng.
“Not only asset confiscation, those found having committed corruption need to be held criminally accountable,” he said.
The sanctions additionally target three members of Kun Kim’s family and five businesses, whereas 11 companies linked to Try Pheap have also been sanctioned.
VOA Khmer attempted to contact Try Pheap, Kun Kim and his wife King Chandy for comment last week but did not receive any replies to requests for comment.
King Chandy also told RFA Khmer last week that her family had no assets in the U.S. and urged the country to confiscate any assets it found there.
“If they want to freeze it, go ahead,” she said. “If we have our money kept in the U.S., let the Treasury take it; we won’t complain as we have none there,” she said.
Despite the calls to initiate domestic investigations, ruling party Senator Sok Eysan said the government could not confiscate local assets just based on “such foreign sanctions.”
“If those individuals are really criminals, the Anti-Corruption Unit would have acted already,” said Sok Eysan, who is also the spokesperson for the Cambodian People’s Party.
He added that rights watchdogs like Global Witness and Human Rights Watch have held on to “imperialistic viewpoints” towards Cambodia and that their criticisms were akin to colonial attitudes towards regions they controlled.
Anti-Corruption Unit president Om Yentieng could not be reached for comment.
Despite the government’s reluctance, activists insist actions should be taken against illicit timber traders and those they said are exploiting the nation’s resources for their personal gain, including the members of their families.
“What I appeal is for the government to shut down all sawmills across the country and stop giving licenses for timber traders to export logs,” said Ouch Leng.
“And for all Oknhas, who have arrest warrants or have been implicated in timber trade crimes, when we know of these [crimes], their assets have to be confiscated,” he added.