By Ratha Visal, Hang Savyouth and Sort Sokphrana
Ratanikiri, Cambodia, October 3, 2015
A top mining official on Wednesday urged the government of northeastern Cambodia’s Ratanakiri province to crack down on a group of Vietnamese running an illegal gold mining operation villagers and rights groups say is being protected by local authorities.
A group of officials from the Ratanakiri Mines and Energy Department investigated the camp in Lumphat district Tuesday on a tip from villagers who said 10 Vietnamese nationals had set up shelters and were digging in the area after purchasing local land, according to department director Hun Bunthan.
But while the officials determined that the operation was illegal, they were unable to shut it down without the help of authorities on the order of the provincial government, Hun Bunthan told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“It is a big operation and I need permission, because I am not a police official,” he said, adding that he had requested authorization to close the mining camp from the governor of Ratanakiri.
“We need permission from the provincial governor before we can act.”
Local villagers told RFA that the miners had illegally crossed the border into Cambodia from Vietnam some four years earlier, along with their equipment, and had been surveying locations to dig, while repeated complaints to local officials had been ignored.
One villager, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the group purchased three hectares (7.5 acres) from local residents and had “already built shelters and dug holes” as part of their exploration.
Chhay Thi, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, called the miners “professionals” and said local authorities had been promised a share of their profits in exchange for protecting their operation.
“I think this is an example of systematic collusion,” he said.
When contacted about the camp, Ratanakiri deputy governor Nhem Samoeun told RFA he hadn’t heard about it, but pledged that authorities would take “serious measures” against illegal mining operations in the province.
“We will strongly implement the law,” he said.
Illegal logging assault
In another case of an illicit resource grab allegedly condoned by local authorities, the director of a watchdog group on Wednesday appealed to a court in Oddor Meanchey province to prosecute loggers and a military police officer he said assaulted him last week amid a probe into their illegal timber outfit.
Crimes Prevention of Cambodia director Saing Chak said he had been investigating a group behind an illegal log smuggling convoy in Anglong Veng district on Sept. 15 and a day later was contacted by one of its members, asking to meet to discuss the operation.
When he went to the arranged location that evening, a smuggler named Nak and six other people—one of which was a military police officer—beat him severely, he alleged, leaving his face bruised and bloodied.
On Wednesday, Saing Chak told RFA he had lodged a formal complaint with the Anglong Veng court against the loggers and the military police officer he accused of assaulting him and urged Adhoc to file a complaint on his behalf as well.
“I want the court to summon them and prosecute them according to the law,” he said.
Adhoc provincial coordinator Srey Naren confirmed that he received a complaint from Saing Chak and had seen bruising on the victim’s face after meeting with him as part of a preliminary investigation into his claims.
“After receiving the complaint, we will proceed with a full investigation of the case and ask for intervention from the court,” he said, adding that Adhoc will provide a defense lawyer to represent the victim.
Telephone calls to the military police officer named in the attack went unanswered Wednesday.
Sand dredging impact
Also on Wednesday, villagers in central Cambodia’s Kampong Thom province urged local authorities to take action against two sand dredging companies they say have devastated their community in Santok district.
The companies—one of which is VDB Co. and the other whose name was not immediately available—have been dredging both day and night in Stung Sen stream since late last year, villagers told RFA, and were causing erosion, water pollution and the destruction of area roads.
One villager who declined to be named said authorities should have discussed the potential impact of the companies with the local community.
“Before granting licenses, [the authorities] should have informed the villagers,” he said, adding that residents want the details of the agreements to be released to the public.
He said villagers were never shown any environmental impact studies before the companies were given permission to begin dredging in the area.
Oum Poun, the deputy chief of Ampous village, which lies along the Stung Sen, said local authorities initially refused to grant licenses to the companies, but acquiesced after they agreed to build roads for local residents.
The companies are now extracting at least 200 cubic meters (7,060 cubic feet) of sand from the stream every day, and seriously affecting the lives of area villagers, he said.
“During the dry season, it impacts villagers [who rely on the stream] and during the rainy reason, transportation of sand impacts the roads,” he added.
Krapoeur commune chief Keang Sengky said the two companies were granted licenses from provincial level authorities after conducting environmental studies.
“They sought permission from the provincial Department of Mines and Energy,” he said, adding that “most of the villagers had agreed” to allow the companies to dredge.
The Cambodian government began issuing sand-dredging licenses in 2006, although many companies operate illegally without them.
Companies engaged in the activity use the sand for construction work and export it to other countries in the region.