'If (they) come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken,'' says a government official from the South-east Asian country in a local newspaper report on Tuesday.
The speaker happens to be Hun Neng, brother of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen and, currently, governor of Kompong Cham province. The targets he has in mind for such violence are the researchers of Global Witness, a London-based environmental lobby.
A few days before, Phnom Penh turned its ire on Global Witness by banning the object of such anger -- a 95-page report by the non-governmental organisation (NGO) released Jun.1 about illegal logging in the country. The title, Cambodia's Family Tree,' offers a tongue-in-cheek image of a study that exposes the lengths to which members of the most politically influential families have gone to strip the country's natural assets with 'complete impunity.''
The dominant illegal logging syndicate, which goes under the name of the Seng Keang Company, is 'controlled by individuals related to Prime Minister Hun Sen, Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Chan Sarun and Director General of the Forest Administration Ty Sokhun,'' states Global Witness.
The annual timber haul from illegal logging is estimated to be over 13 million US dollars, reveals the report. 'Illegal logging in Cambodia not only fills the pockets of the political elite; it also funds the activities of a 6,000-strong private army controlled by Hun Sen. The Brigade 70 unite runs a nationwide timber trafficking and smuggling service, catering to prominent tycoons, that generates profits of two million dollars to 2.75 million dollars per year.''
The cost of such plunder on this country, where close to 40 percent of the population live in poverty and where nearly 30 percent of forest cover has been wiped off over a five year period, cannot be ignored, says Global Witness director Simon Taylor. 'The political culture of corruption and impunity means that Cambodians are still among the world's poorest people.''
'I don't view the government of Cambodia as the government of Cambodia. It has been captured by a kleptocratic elite,'' he said in an IPS interview. 'Lawlessness is an issue that starts at the top.''
But this showdown has broader implications. It comes days ahead of a major meeting of international donors in Phnom Penh, where rampant corruption, human rights violations and the culture of impunity due to flaws in the criminal justice system are expected to come under some scrutiny.
The meeting of the Cambodia Development Cooperation Forum, which runs from Jun. 19-20, will include representatives from the World Bank and officials from developed nations. Pledges made at this meeting, which previously met as the Consultative Group (CG) to aid Cambodia, often account for close to half of the country's national budget.
In March 2006, the CG pledged to give 600 million U.S. dollars in aid to Cambodia. Yet at the same time, it turned the heat on the Hun Sen administration, urging the government to crackdown on corruption through a comprehensive anti-corruption law, to implement broad judicial reform and to demonstrate genuine efforts to stem the destruction of the country's natural resources.
This push for cleaner government came in the wake of a law approved in early March last year by the 123-member National Assembly. It gave the power for a political party to form a government if it had secured a simple majority, rather than a two-thirds majority, as was the case before. The immediate winner was Hun Sen's Cambodia People's Party (CPP), which had 73 seats in the legislature.
That Phnom Penh has dragged its feet on the goals set out by the CG -- despite the CPP enjoying the right to govern alone for the first time and pass new laws -- is not only the view of Global Witness.
Even local, independent think tanks based in the country's capital are hardly impressed. 'There is hardly any sign of major change. There has been slow progress on legal reform and corruption is still a big concern,'' Im Sophea, a ranking member of the Centre for Social Development, told IPS by phone from Phnom Penh.
And rather than threaten critics, the government should 'conduct a proper investigation to find out if the revelations in recent reports are true,'' he says. 'The international donors must take note of this.''
'The donors have to hold the government accountable to deal with the lawlessness,'' adds Taylor. 'What is happening is that Hun Sen says no and they (the donors) stick their heads in the sand like an ostrich.''
In fact, Hun Sen has also been as caustic as his brother -- although less threatening in his words. His target is also another international voice that has levelled criticism at the country's human rights record. On Monday, the premier used a speech broadcast on national radio to attack Yash Ghai, a Kenyan lawyer who is currently serving as the U.N. human rights envoy to Cambodia.
'Even if you live for another 1,000 years and I am still alive, I will not meet you,'' Hun Sen was quoted as having said over the radio, according to the AFP news agency.
Cambodian government officials have continued to snub the U.N. envoy since he arrived in the country on May 29. This visit came after his recent report provided a critical account of the widespread impunity enjoyed by human rights violators, consequently undermining the rule of law.
'It is imperative that the Cambodian government embrace the rule of law to honour its international human rights obligations,'' the Hong Kong-based Asia Legal Resource Centre said in a statement soon after Ghai arrived in the country. 'The core element of the rule of law is an independent judiciary. In Cambodia, the judiciary is under the executive control as judges are mostly affiliated to the ruling CPP party.''
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