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Cambodian Logging Tycoon Accused of Concession Violations

A Cambodian rights group has alleged that a logging tycoon close to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and the ruling party has been granted state land concessions that are nearly seven times above the limit under the law.In a 50-page report, local nongovernmental organization Cambodia Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) also accused timber magnate Try Pheap of blatantly flouting conditions for granting the economic land concessions (ELC).It also charged that Try Pheap had channeled around U.S. $1 million to Hun Sen’s family and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for unspecified expenditures before the July 28 elections whose results remain disputed despite official returns declaring the CPP as the victor.In response to the allegations, a senior CPP official told RFA’s Khmer Service on Thursday that the government would investigate the matter, saying the authorities would never allow companies to operate ELCs illegally.In Wednesday’s report, CHRTF claimed that Try Pheap had amassed nearly 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of ELCs, or seven times more than the 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) allowed to a single individual, through as many as 15 companies operating under his name or that of his wife, Mao Mom.According to Article 59 of Cambodia’s Land Law, individuals or legal entities controlled by the same person cannot hold more than 10,000 hectares of ELCs, even if it is spread over multiple concessions.That law allows the government to make use of all “private state land” and lease them to companies for as many as 99 years.Nearly 1,500 families have been evicted from their homes since 2010 as a result of Try Pheap’s acquisitions, which have also encroached on protected forests, wildlife sanctuaries and as many as 20 national parks, the report said.“We have conducted studies on Try Pheap’s companies and we found that they breached their contracts with the government [according to what is required under] land concession licenses,” Ouch Leng, director of CHRTF, told RFA’s Khmer Service.“The companies have mainly cut down the forests, but they have left the land undeveloped,” without facing punishment, he said.Ouch Leng said that Try Pheap and his family had paid around U.S. $1 million to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and the CPP.“Before the election, they spent more than U.S. $1 million,” Ouch Leng said, claiming that he had been told about the payment by members of Try Pheap’s family.“[Try Pheap’s] family members can’t enjoy a rich lifestyle because they spent so much money on the ruling party and Hun Sen’s family,” he said, without providing details about how the money was channeled or what it was used for.Special preferenceCHRTF said it had sent a team of investigators to compile information on Try Pheap’s companies and to track company officials as they transported the timber into Vietnam for resale to third countries.Try Pheap has exclusive rights to collect and buy luxury timber, mainly rosewood, from government-granted land concessions in 15 provinces, the CHRTF report said, and his companies also clear timber from concession areas in nine other provinces.“Through our investigation, we found that [the main entity] Try Pheap Import Export is the biggest operation [in Cambodia] extracting luxury wood and exporting it to foreign countries through Vietnam,” the report said.“The company pays only minimal attention to [developing the] agricultural industry, such as through the planting of rubber and pepper [as required under the concessions]. It received land concessions and only cuts down the forests—it doesn’t develop the concession areas.”The Phnom Penh Post cited Ouch Leng as saying that the company has also “fed and sponsored armed forces and civil servants in the concession area[s] by helping build offices, but it does not help improve people’s lives.”Try Pheap’s 14 other companies are largely involved with logging and the exporting of wood, though the tycoon also controls some mining interests as well, the report said.His “close ties” with the government have allowed Try Pheap Import Export to open 27 offices in 12 provinces, it said, adding that CHRTF is in possession of documents from the environment and commerce ministries that detail the company’s concessions.It claims Try Pheap is closely connected with officials from the ministries of interior and agriculture, the military, forestry officials and other concessionaires.CHRTF said in a statement that it had released the report focusing only on Try Pheap’s companies “to urge the government to take action and show the truth behind why our forests are disappearing.”Response to claimsTry Pheap could not be reached by RFA on Thursday for comment on the allegations.But the Post reported that a company representative in Preah Vihear province denied allegations of illegal activity.“Our company does not log illegally,” said the representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Try Pheap’s companies had rights to buy timber in only eight provinces.“We buy wood that has been seized by the authorities … The money goes to the state. We do not export it. We process it in Phnom Penh as furniture.”He called allegations about the companies’ practices false, and said that villagers were given adequate compensation when they were relocated.When asked by RFA about claims of concession violations by Try Pheap’s companies and allegations about money funneled by the tycoon to the CPP and Hun Sen, senior CPP official and National Assembly—or parliament—spokesman Chheang Vun called non-sanctioned deforestation “a crime.”“But any deforestation that is done with the permission of the government following detailed studies is legal,” he said.Hun Sen’s government would never allow anyone to conduct logging without prior approval, Chheang Vun said, adding that the prime minister “has already made it clear that anyone who is caught illegally logging will be prosecuted.”He criticized CHRTF for issuing a report without having consulted the government.“NGOs should [first] file complaints with the government,” Chheang Vun said, as well as with Cambodia’s anti-corruption task force and the National Assembly, calling for a probe into the claims.He pledged to investigate the allegations, saying “leading lawmakers in the areas raised by the NGO will hold discussions with permanent commissions to see which steps to pursue.”Try Pheap’s activities have been the focus of several reports this year, including one in August by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which said it had evidence of rampant illegal logging in Preah Vihear. Another investigation in October by National Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organization concluded that licenses granted to the tycoon for extracting and buying timber from ELCs will leave the areas ecologically impoverished.Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Source: RFA News Headlines

Myanmar Political Parties to Join Government Talks With Rebels

Representatives from Myanmar’s ruling and opposition parties will meet with armed ethnic rebel leaders this week to help lay the framework for an elusive nationwide cease-fire agreement that the government wants to get signed by the end of the year. Ahead of three-day talks in Thailand beginning Friday, a senior member of Myanmar’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and a Kachin rebel army leader indicated that issues over lucrative business interests in conflict zones could mar negotiations to end decades of military conflict. USDP central committee member Hla Swe questioned whether ethnic rebel leaders were “really representing the interests of their people” in the negotiations. “Some leaders from ethnic armed groups are mostly working based on business [interests]. I don’t think they are working enough for ethnic rights,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service ahead of the talks in northern Thailand’s Chiang Mai.He warned the government against giving in to rebel demands, saying President Thein Sein’s negotiating team led by Minister Aung Min had been too patient already. “I think the government has acceded more than it should,” he said. General Gwan Maw, chief of staff of the military wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), accused other prominent rebel groups of signing ceasefire agreements with the government in exchange for lucrative car import permits.“To those making efforts for peace, I urge them not to exchange peace for car permits,” the Kachin News Group quoted him as saying in a speech to hundreds of ethnic Kachins in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on Tuesday before heading to Chiang Mai for the talks. The KIO, the only major rebel group without an active individual cease-fire agreement with the government, is a key member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) rebel alliance, which is based in Chiang Mai. Talks with a dozen political partiesUNFC leaders will meet Friday with representatives from a dozen Myanmar political parties, comprising, among other groups, the USDP, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), and ethnic-based parties, including those not represented in parliament. In talks organized by the government-affiliated Myanmar Peace Center, the political party representatives will also meet with the Nationwide Cease-fire Coalition Team, the Restoration Council of Shan State, the Working Group for Ethnic Coordination, and the Women’s League of Burma. The meetings are aimed at narrowing differences between the government and the rebel groups ahead of the next round of nationwide cease-fire talks scheduled to take place next month in the Kayin (Karen) state capital Hpa-An. After the talks in Thailand, the Nationwide Cease-fire Coalition Team is expected to draw up a draft nationwide cease-fire pact that will be sent to the government next week. Government negotiators have said they want to get all of the rebel groups to sign the nationwide cease-fire together at a ceremony in Naypyidaw by the end of the year. But the peace process has hit stumbling blocks as the rebel groups demand a federal military and amendments to the constitution to create a federal political system allowing ethnic states greater autonomy, as well as political and social reforms. This week’s meetings will be an opportunity for political parties to weigh in on the peace process spearheaded by President Thein Sein’s government, which is racing to end conflict with the rebels to speed up reforms after decades of military rule. Aside from the cease-fire they are also expected to discuss amendments to the country’s 2008 constitution, the creation of a federal political system, and women’s roles in national reform. Myanmar has a number of small ethnic-based parties, many of which have called for amending the constitution to allow for more autonomy for ethnic states. This week’s talks will include representatives from the ethnic-based Shan Nationalities Democratic Party (SNDP), the Shan National League for Democracy, the Chin Progressive Party, the Karen People’s Party, as well as the National Democratic Force and the Peace and Diversity Party, among others. Preparing for political dialogueMyanmar Peace Center representative Nyo Ohn Myint said the government welcomed input from other political parties since they are expected to participate in political dialogue the government and rebels have agreed to hold after signing a nationwide cease-fire. “When we hold political dialogue, political parties and ethnic parties that are not armed groups will be in the dialogue. It is good to have their opinion in advance before the political dialogue,” he told RFA. The Myanmar Peace Center had arranged for the parties to join the discussions at their request, he said. SNDP general secretary Sia Nyunt Lwin said the talks would focus “mainly” on the nationwide cease-fire and that as an ethnic-based party, the SNDP could help mediate discussions between ethnic leaders and the government. “Although SNLD is familiar with the ethnic armed groups, other political parties are not. We will all be dialogue partners, and that’s why this talk was arranged—for us to meet each other and share opinions,” he told RFA. UNFC secretary Naing Han Tha said rebel groups welcomed the chance to talk with political party representatives. “Having the discussions here with all groups will be helpful to solving problems such as how to proceed based on what the people want and how to amend 2008 constitution,” he told RFA.Reported by Sai Tun Aung Lwin, Yadanar Oo, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

Source: RFA News Headlines

Dalai Lama Defends Tibet Flag at Meeting with Japanese Lawmakers

Tibet’s spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has hit back at Beijing’s claims that the use of the Tibetan flag was part of a bid to split Tibet from China, saying Mao Zedong had given him personal approval to keep and fly the flag. The Dalai Lama came to the defense of the Tibetan flag when he was about to leave the National Diet Building in Tokyo after speaking to the Japanese All Party Parliamentary Group on Wednesday, according to a report on his official website. Standing to leave, the Dalai Lama, his attention caught by the Tibetan flag standing next to his table, said he would like to tell the Japanese lawmakers a story. He said that during one of his meetings with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing in 1954, Mao had asked him whether Tibet had a flag. When the Dalai Lama cautiously answered that it did, Mao replied, “Good, you must fly it alongside the national flag,” according to the report. “This is why, today, despite hardliners in Peking [Beijing] asserting that the Tibetan flag is a symbol of the ‘splittists’, His Holiness feels he has Mao Zedong’s personal permission to keep and fly it,” the report said. The Dalai Lama fled Tibet following a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. He later founded the government in exile after being offered refuge by India. He has been the face and symbol of the Tibetan freedom struggle since then. Despite persistently denying that he is seeking independence for Tibet, the Dalai Lama continues to be vilified by the Chinese leadership, who call him a “splittist” and a “wolf in monk’s clothes.” Symbol The Dalai Lama’s remarks in Tokyo followed a number of reports in recent weeks of Tibetans resisting campaigns by Beijing ordering them to fly Chinese flags in their homes, at monasteries, or at government-funded community centers. Weeks of protests last month in Driru (in Chinese, Biru) county in the Tibet Autonomous Region by villagers who refused to fly the flags and dumped them in a river prompted a security crackdown in which Chinese police fired into unarmed crowds. The Tibetan flag was a symbol of the military of Tibet, introduced by the 13th Dalai Lama in 1912 and used in the same capacity until 1959. It was designed with the help of a Japanese priest, according to reports. The flag continues to be used by Tibetans and exile groups as a banner for seeking greater freedom. Sporadic demonstrations challenging Beijing’s rule have continued in Tibetan-populated areas of China since widespread protests swept the region in 2008. According to the report on the Dalai Lama’s website, there was only time for him to be asked one question at the meeting with the Japanese lawmakers and it was related to the Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama said the burning protests are “sad.” He said because of “the great difficulties” Tibetans face, “these people are prepared to give up their lives.” “It’s not because they are drunk or beset by domestic problems,” he said, in response to claims by the Chinese authorities. The Dalai Lama said it is difficult for him to ask the Tibetans “to act differently” because he has “nothing to offer them.” “It’s for the Chinese authorities to investigate the situation thoroughly to establish why so many in Tibet have chosen this path,” the Dalai Lama said. He said he was sad that some of those who have set fire to themselves have been young mothers. A total of 123 Tibetans in China have set themselves ablaze in self-immolation protests calling for Tibetan freedom. The latest burning protest was reported on Nov. 11 in Pema (Banma) county in Qinghai province’s Golog (Guoluo) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. Reported by RFA’s Tibetan Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

Source: RFA News Headlines