US Ambassador, Cambodian Defense Minister Hold Rare Meeting Following US Sanctions

U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy has held a rare meeting with Cambodia’s Minister of Defense General Tea Banh in the wake of sanctions Washington leveled against a Chinese developer operating in the Southeast Asian nation. The Union Development Group (UDG)—which is building the U.S. $3.8 billion-dollar Dara Sakor project including a seaport, resorts, and casinos in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province —was sanctioned by the Treasury Department on Sept. 15 under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for land grabs, rights abuses, and corruption in the country. The Department also raised concerns that Beijing may be using the project to secretly build a naval base and airstrip for military use as part of a bid to secure its territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Tea Banh, who last week said that UDG had been targeted unfairly and is operating in line with Cambodia’s laws, met with Ambassador Murphy on Monday at the Office of the Council of Ministers in the capital Phnom Penh to hold talks attended by senior officials of both the Defense Ministry and the U.S. Embassy. In a post to Facebook on Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy said Murphy “had a productive meeting” with Tea Banh, also Cambodia’s deputy prime minister, “to discuss a range of potential areas of strengthened security cooperation, as well as ongoing efforts to preserve Cambodia’s sovereignty.” U.S. Embassy spokesperson Arend Zwartjes told RFA’s Khmer Service in an email Wednesday that Washington is “hopeful that we can find a way to expand military-to-military cooperation” as a result of the talks. Cambodia’s Defense Ministry abruptly suspended annual “Angkor Sentinel” joint exercises with the U.S. military in 2017. The government had claimed it was too busy preparing security for commune elections in June 2018 to take part in the exercises, but they have yet to be reestablished. Observers said at the time that the moves indicated Cambodia was pivoting away from Western influence in favor of better relations with other countries on the rise in Asia, such as China. In April, Prime Minister Hun Sen said that his government would welcome resumed military drills with the U.S. but urged Washington to stop suggesting that Phnom Penh was responsible for ending the exercises. The possibility that China could establish a military foothold in Cambodia has long worried Washington. Vice President Mike Pence in 2018 wrote a letter to Hun Sen expressing fears that Cambodia might be planning to host Chinese military equipment at the Ream Naval Base in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, but Hun Sen dismissed the concerns. Ream base was at the center of controversy last year after The Wall Street Journal in July cited U.S. and allied officials as confirming a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base for 30 years—with automatic renewals every 10 years after that—and to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships. The reported deal, which would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and allow it to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, was vehemently denied at the time by Hun Sen, who said permitting foreign use of a military base in the country would “be in full contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution.” Cambodia's Dara Sakor airport is shown under construction by China's United Development Group (UDG) in a June 9, 2020 photo. Planet Labs, Inc. Reports dismissed Cambodia’s Ministry of Defense posted a statement on its website Tuesday saying Tea Banh reiterated that reports Cambodia will allow a Chinese military presence on its territory are unfounded. “Samdech Tea Banh said that Ream Navy Base is small and shallow and cannot accommodate big ships or big vessels,” the statement said, referring to the minister with an honorific title and adding that any development of the site will be “for Cambodian naval use only.” However, Tea Banh noted that development at Ream Navy Base had been studied over the last 10 years and upon completion would “welcome any ship.” “Tea Banh stressed that Cambodia’s constitution won’t allow any foreign military base on Cambodian territory,” the statement said. “Related to the U.S. concerns over Ream Navy Base, Tea Banh stressed that it will be solely reserved for Cambodian usage, not for foreign militaries.” Speaking to RFA, political analyst Em Sovannara said Washington routinely brings up the possibility of a foreign navy base to counter Chinese influence in Cambodia and to ensure Hun Sen’s government honors the country’s constitution. He said Cambodia should “show the world it is impartial and welcome all stakeholders.” “Cambodia should show it is not leaning toward any particular powerful nation and should open cooperation to all countries in a gesture of goodwill,” he said. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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Chinese Developer in Cambodia Sanctioned ‘Unfairly’ by US, Cambodia’s Defense Minister Says

A Chinese company sanctioned this week by the U.S. Treasury Department for land grabs, rights abuses, and corruption in Cambodia has been targeted unfairly and is operating in line with the country’s laws, Cambodia’s defense minister said on Friday.The Union Development Group (UDG)—which is building the U.S. $3.8 billion dollar Dara Sakor project including a seaport, resorts, and casinos in Cambodia’s Koh Kong province —was sanctioned by the Treasury Department on Tuesday under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.The Department also raised concerns that Beijing may be using the project to secretly build a naval base and airstrip for military use as part of a bid to secure its territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service in an interview on Friday, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh challenged the charges made against UDG, saying the Chinese state-owned developer has “invested properly” in the Southeast Asian country and is operating within Cambodia’s laws.“It is not true at all to say that this company is involved in corruption and human rights violations,” the defense minister said. “The company has properly invested in Cambodia according to Cambodian laws, and has always complied with guidelines issued by the government, just the same as other companies investing [in Cambodia].”Though UDG’s investments in Cambodia have had “impacts” on residents of the areas near projects, the company and the Cambodian government have properly compensated villagers displaced by the company’s work and are “finding solutions for the problems that remain,” Tea Banh said.The Dara Sakor project has been mired in controversy ever since UDG’s parent company, Tianjin Wanlong Group, was granted a 99-year lease to 90,000 acres along 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline in May 2008. The lease was handed to Tianjin Wanlong without an open bidding process, and provided the company with more than triple the size of any concession allowed under Cambodia’s land law.UDG soon began clearing large swathes of forest from the Botum Sakor National Park, which was included as part of the land lease, and forced hundreds of families to relocate. Many have yet to receive the compensation they were promised as part of the deal 12 years ago.The Treasury Department confirmed on Sept. 15 that UDG’s seizure and destruction of villagers’ land was carried out in part by Cambodian military forces, which controlled villagers’ movements, prevented them from planting rice paddies on disputed land, and burned down the houses of villagers with whom UDG had conflicts.Meanwhile, much of the Dara Sakor project, touted by Beijing as one of its signature Belt and Road Initiative projects, remains unfinished, and completed structures like casinos and a hotel have been left largely to rot.Work has continued though on Dara Sakor’s international airport, which will be the largest in Cambodia when finished, heightening U.S. concerns that the facility and a deep-sea port under construction nearby will be used someday to base and support Chinese military forces.Reports that Cambodia will allow a Chinese military presence on its territory are unfounded, Tea Banh told RFA.“Frankly, these accusations based on so-called credible reports only serve the geopolitical interests of the United States within the region,” the defense minister said, adding, “Cambodia has no real concerns about this.”“The U.S. itself has several military bases around the world, but no one questions them about that. I find this really hard to explain,” he said.'China has been an enabler'Observers meanwhile welcomed the U.S. moves against UDG, with Sophal Ear—an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in California—saying that the U.S. has now shown there will be consequences for China’s economic, political, and military encroachments in Cambodia.“The U.S. is like a wedding crasher. China and the Hun Sen regime were getting married, and the U.S. showed up to ruin their perfect ceremony!” Sophal Ear said.“The regime isn’t going to like their money or power relationships being touched. But then again, there ought to be consequences for human rights abuses, the destruction of democracy, and the curtailing of freedom.”“China has been an enabler of the Hun Sen regime—and it needs to be told in no uncertain terms to cut it out,” he said.Cambodia-based political science professor Em Sovannara said that by sanctioning UDG, the United States has signaled its continuing willingness to enforce international law and help smaller countries be more cautious in their dealings with China, whose companies “always violate legal principles.”“But I think that Cambodia won’t benefit much from these latest measures because of the strong and close relations it has built with China in recent years,” he said.Alex Gonzalez-Davidson—an environmental activist and founder of Mother Nature, a group working to protect the environment in Koh Kong—called the U.S. sanctions against the Chinese development firm a warning to Hun Sen to roll back Beijing’s influence in the country.“This is a clear signal to Hun Sen that if he doesn’t limit China’s influence, and doesn’t restore human rights and democracy [in Cambodia], he can expect even more entities to be placed on a U.S. black list,” Gonzalez-Davidson said, adding that even Hun Sen’s family members and Hun Sen himself may find themselves sanctioned someday.China has stepped in to wield significant influence in Cambodia in recent years as relations between Phnom Penh and Western governments have cooled amid concerns over the country’s human rights situation and political environment following a broad crackdown on the political opposition in 2017.Chinese investment has meanwhile flowed into Cambodia, but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they call unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese businessmen and residents.Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

Continue Reading Chinese Developer in Cambodia Sanctioned ‘Unfairly’ by US, Cambodia’s Defense Minister Says

Cambodia Slams US Sanctions on Chinese Developer as Attack on Sovereignty

Cambodia’s government on Wednesday condemned the U.S. Department of Treasury’s decision to sanction a Chinese developer building a massive project in the country’s Koh Kong province over graft and rights abuses, calling the allegations “false” and saying the jungle resort plan was going ahead. The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on Tuesday sanctioned Union Development Group (UDG) for the “seizure and demolition of local Cambodians’ land” during construction of the Dara Sakor project, prohibiting the company from doing business with any U.S. citizen and cutting it off from the U.S. financial system. The Treasury said that in order to obtain the land for the U.S. $3.8 billion-dollar project—which includes an airport, deep water seaport, and casino resort as part of an investment zone in the middle of the jungle—UDG falsified its registration to say that it was Cambodian owned before reverting to its true Chinese ownership and continuing to operate without repercussions. UDG was designated under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act for “acting for or on behalf of a current or former government official, who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in corruption”—in this case, a Chinese-owned company acting on behalf of a Chinese official. The Treasury said some of UDG’s “seizure and demolition” of land for the Dara Sakor project was conducted through Kun Kim, a former senior Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) who the agency sanctioned in December last year for corruption. It said Kun Kim had directed military forces to prevent villagers from planting rice paddy fields on disputed lands, as well as burn down their houses and control their movements. The agency also raised concerns that Beijing may be using the project to secretly build a deep-water port naval base and airstrip for military use there as part of a bid to secure its territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. It noted that Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan has said Dara Sakor could be converted to host military assets. On Wednesday, Phay Siphan posted a message on his Facebook page denouncing the Treasury’s “false allegations” and said the agency had misquoted him. “It is an exaggeration,” he said of the statement. RFA’s Khmer Service was unable to reach Phay Siphan for comment on the sanctions. Calls to Kun Kim also went unanswered on Wednesday. Sok Ey San, spokesperson for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), told reporters that while Washington acted within its rights in leveling sanctions against UDG, the company’s project plan was vetted and approved by the Cambodia Development Council and would proceed as planned. “What we have done is a matter of sovereignty,” he said. “Foreign sanctions will have no impact as the development is moving forward without any obstacles.” Sok Ey San said he did not expect that the Treasury’s decision would affect bilateral relations between Washington and Phnom Penh. Sanctions welcomed The Dara Sakor project has been mired in controversy ever since UDG’s parent company, Tianjin Wanlong Group, was granted a 99-year lease to 90,000 acres along 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline in May 2008. The lease, which was handed to Tianjin Wanlong without an open bidding process, provided the company with more than triple the size of any concession allowed under Cambodia’s land law and exempted it from any payments for a decade. UDG soon began clearing large swathes of forest from Botum Sakor National Park that was included as part of the land lease and forcing hundreds of families to relocate—many of which have yet to receive compensation they were promised as part of the deal 12 years ago. Meanwhile, much of the Dara Sakor project remains unfinished, and structures that wee built—such as the casino and hotel—have been largely left to rot. Few tourists visit the area and not many companies have signed deals to set up a presence in the investment zone. Thorng Chandara, Koh Kong provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the project has affected residents of two of the province’s districts, “more than 1,000 families” yet to receive compensation for being uprooted. He said residents were never informed about the development or given the opportunity to discuss how it should proceed. Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the founder of domestic environmental watchdog Mother Nature, welcomed the sanctions, saying Washington had sent Hun Sen a message that there will be more to come if he continues to abuse human rights and destroy Cambodia’s natural resources—and particularly if he allows China to build a military base in the country. “If the government allows Chinese military installations, not only will Try Pheap or Kun Kim be targeted, sanctions will affect Hun Sen’s family as well,” he said. “This is a message for Hun Sen to back down.” Rampant timber trafficking in Cambodia led the Treasury Department to sanction Try Pheap, a business tycoon with close ties to Hun Sen, and 11 of his registered entities at the same time as Kun Kim. Treasury cited his establishment of “a large-scale illegal logging consortium that relies on the collusion of Cambodian officials, to include purchasing protection from the government, including military protection, for the movement of his illegal products.” The possibility that China could establish a military foothold in Cambodia has long worried Washington. Vice President Mike Pence in 2018 wrote a letter to Hun Sen expressing fears that Cambodia might be planning to host Chinese military equipment at the Ream Naval Base in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, but Hun Sen dismissed the concerns. Ream base was at the center of controversy last year after The Wall Street Journal in July cited U.S. and allied officials as confirming a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base for 30 years—with automatic renewals every 10 years after that—and to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships. The reported deal, which would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and allow it to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, was vehemently denied at the time by Hun Sen, who said permitting foreign use of a military base in the country would “be in full contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution.” Beijing decries ‘unwarranted allegations’ On Wednesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters at a regular press briefing in Beijing that the Chinese government requires overseas Chinese companies to abide by local laws and regulations and stressed that bilateral cooperation between China and Cambodia is “open, transparent, mutually beneficial and equal.” Wang said the U.S. “has repeatedly used unwarranted allegations that China’s relevant projects in other countries could be transformed into military bases to discredit and attack our normal cooperation with relevant countries.” “However, the United States itself has hundreds of military bases in more than 150 countries around the world,” he said, calling Washington’s approach “hypocritical.” Wang alleged that Washington has been “violating international law … to illegally impose sanctions on Chinese companies” in order to “contain and suppress China” and vowed that Beijing will “take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of its own enterprises.” The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh issued a statement on its Facebook page Wednesday claiming that the Trump administration had “exaggerated the truth” in order to sanction UDG, calling the action a violation of Cambodian sovereignty and demanding that Washington reverse course. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Continue Reading Cambodia Slams US Sanctions on Chinese Developer as Attack on Sovereignty

US Treasury Sanctions Chinese Developer For Land Seizure, Graft in Cambodia Project

The U.S. Department of Treasury on Tuesday sanctioned a Chinese developer for the “seizure and demolition of local Cambodians’ land” during construction of the Dara Sakor project in Cambodia, which has been touted by Beijing as one of the key pieces in its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. The sanctions by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), which target perpetrators of serious human rights abuse and corruption under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, prohibit Union Development Group (UDG) from conducting business with any U.S. citizen and cuts it off from the U.S. financial system, the agency said in a statement. Additionally, land granted to UDG as part of a lease by the Cambodian government extends into Botum Sakor National Park, a protected area which can only be handed over by royal decree. The Treasury Department said that in order to obtain the land, UDG falsified its registration to hide its Chinese ownership. “After falsely registering as a Cambodian-owned entity in order to receive land for the Dara Sakor development project, UDG reverted to its true ownership and continued to operate without repercussions,” said Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “The United States is committed to using the full range of its authorities to target these practices wherever they occur.” The Treasury Department said that it had designated UDG for “acting for or on behalf of a current or former government official, who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in corruption”—in this case, a Chinese-owned company acting on behalf of a Chinese official. Tuesday’s action was not the first taken by the Treasury Department against entities in connection with the U.S. $3.8 billion-dollar Dara Sakor project, which includes an airport, deep water seaport, and casino resort as part of an investment zone in the middle of the jungle in Koh Kong province. In December last year, the agency sanctioned former senior Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) general Kun Kim for corruption, noting that he was “instrumental in a development in Koh Kong province and had reaped significant financial benefit from his relationships with a People’s Republic of China (PRC) state-owned entity.” On Tuesday, the Treasury confirmed that some of UDG’s “seizure and demolition” of land for the Dara Sakor project was conducted through Kun Kim. “Specifically, with the assistance of Cambodian military forces provided through Kim, UDG prevented local villagers from planting rice paddy fields on the disputed land and was also accused of burning down the houses of villagers with whom it had conflicts, and of using private security and Cambodian military forces to control the movements of local villagers,” the statement said. “Cambodia’s Council of Ministers issued a directive ordering UDG to stop destroying villagers’ property; however, UDG ignored the directive and continued the destruction.” Controversial project The Dara Sakor project has been mired in controversy ever since UDG’s parent company, Tianjin Wanlong Group, was granted a 99-year lease to 90,000 acres along 20 percent of Cambodia’s coastline in May 2008. The lease, which was handed to Tianjin Wanlong without an open bidding process, provided the company with more than triple the size of any concession allowed under Cambodia’s land law and exempted it from any payments for a decade. UDG soon began clearing large swathes of forest from Botum Sakor National Park that was included as part of the land lease and forcing hundreds of families to relocate—many of which have yet to receive compensation they were promised as part of the deal 12 years ago. Meanwhile, much of the Dara Sakor project remains unfinished, and structures that are—such as the casino and hotel—have been largely left to rot. Few tourists visit the area and not many companies have signed deals to set up a presence in the investment zone. It is not entirely clear why Dara Sakor appeared to have been adopted as a Belt and Road project in 2017, when the China Development Bank told China’s official People’s Daily newspaper that it had underwritten a U.S. $15 million “Belt and Road” bond to support UDG’s building of a resort on Cambodia’s coast. The report did not mention Dara Sakor by name. The project was also included in a 2017 Belt and Road yearbook published by an affiliate of China’s Ministry of Commerce, describing it as “the biggest project of the Belt and Road initiative so far.” On Tuesday, the Treasury said that UDG-funded activities “have forced Cambodians from their land and devastated the environment, hurting the livelihoods of local communities, all under the guise of converting Cambodia into a regional logistics hub and tourist destination.” “As is too often the case with Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative, these activities have disproportionately benefitted the PRC, at the expense of the Cambodian people.” Villagers in a land dispute with UDG protest in front of Beijing's embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 8, 2019. RFA Military use The opacity of the project has led to fears, particularly in Washington, that Beijing may secretly be building a deep-water port naval base and airstrip for military use there as part of a bid to secure its territorial claims in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Treasury said Tuesday that China “has used UDG’s projects in Cambodia to advance ambitions to project power globally,” noting that Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan has said that Dara Sakor could be converted to host military assets. “A permanent PRC military presence in Cambodia could threaten regional stability and undermine the prospects for the peaceful settlement of disputes, the promotion of maritime safety and security, and the freedom of navigation and overflight,” it said. Vice President Mike Pence in 2018 wrote a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen expressing fears that Cambodia might be planning to host Chinese military equipment at the Ream Naval Base in the coastal city of Sihanoukville, but Hun Sen dismissed the concerns. Ream base was at the center of controversy last year after The Wall Street Journal in July cited U.S. and allied officials as confirming a secret deal to allow the Chinese to use part of the base for 30 years—with automatic renewals every 10 years after that—and to post military personnel, store weapons and berth warships. The reported deal, which would provide China with its first naval staging facility in Southeast Asia and allow it to significantly expand patrols on the South China Sea, was vehemently denied at the time by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said permitting foreign use of a military base in the country would “be in full contradiction to Cambodia’s constitution.” Pivot to China Increased ties between the militaries of Cambodia and China, which now include annual joint military exercises, come as Phnom Penh has increasingly pivoted towards Beijing since finding itself ostracized by Western governments over significant rollbacks on democratic freedoms. In November 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to ban the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), months after its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for an alleged plot to overthrow the government. The dissolution of the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the opposition, NGOs and the independent media, which paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election. While relations with the West have increasingly soured in the aftermath of the ballot, Cambodia’s government has since touted improved ties with China, which typically offers funding without many of the prerequisites that the U.S. and EU place on donations, such as improvements to human rights and rule of law. Chinese investment now flows into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to the port city of Sihanoukville—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.

Continue Reading US Treasury Sanctions Chinese Developer For Land Seizure, Graft in Cambodia Project