Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has given permission to a powerful senator from Cambodia’s ruling party to develop a part of Koh Kong Krau Island, with the announcement coming just days after a group of activists were blocked by authorities from demanding the island be kept in its pristine state.
Described by environmental activists as “untouched,” the 103-km square island in Koh Kong province is widely known for its beauty and abundant natural resources, including green forests, white sandy beaches, clean sea water, waterfalls, and plentiful wildlife.
The island’s inhabitants consist mostly of sustainable fishermen who rely on the island’s natural resources to earn a living.
Speaking to reporters in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh on Thursday, Koh Kong provincial governor Mithona Puthong said that the Koh Kong SEZ company run by Cambodian People’s Party senator and businessman Ly Young Phat received a license to proceed a year ago, on June 14, 2019.
“I can’t tell you what the possible [negative] impacts of the investment will be, though, since we are still waiting to learn the results of an Environmental Impact Assessment,” she said.
An impact assessment should have been completed before the government gave approval for the investment project to proceed, though, Puon Keo Reaksmey—an activist with the environmental protection group Mother Nature—said, speaking to RFA.
“I think that this project is far from transparent and is not in line with the law, as it was not required to conduct an Environmental Impact Assessment before it received approval for a license,” she said, adding, “This was done in secret, to hide it from the public.”
On Thursday, June 4, the Mother Nature group suspended a campaign calling on the government to protect Koh Kong Krau Island after a group of its activists, mounted first on bicycles and then proceeding on foot, were harassed and threatened with arrest the day before by local authorities.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Environment has meanwhile been silent on the investment, but had earlier accused the Mother Nature activists of concealing an anti-government agenda behind its campaign, claiming that the Ministry has been studying the island in order to put it under legal protection as a national park since 2016.
CPP Senator and Hun Sen ally Ly Yong Phat is already known for controlling large parts of Cambodia’s sugar industry for over a decade, with the powerful tycoon sometimes sending armed military police to burn villagers’ crops and trees and take their land by force, according to a March 2017 report by the news source Politico.
Land disputes are a bitter problem in Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
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