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Sunday, June 03, 2007

Cambodian government orders ban, confiscation of illegal logging report

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia: Cambodia ordered the banning on Sunday of a stinging report which accuses senior government officials and relatives of the prime minister of illegally stripping the country's forests.

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith, who is also the chief government spokesman, issued a statement calling on the Ministry of Interior, which controls the police force, to ban and confiscate the report by the London-based environmental watchdog group Global Witness.

Khieu Kanharith did not specifically reject the report's allegations but said they were politically motivated.

"The report centers its accusations on the government leader (Prime Minister Hun Sen) with an aim to provoke political animosity in the country, which exceeds the business of this organization," said Khieu Kanharith.

Global Witness released the 95-page report titled "Cambodia's Family Trees" Friday. It came ahead of the June 19-20 meeting of international donors to pledge new aid for Cambodia. It was not clear yet if Global Witness plans to distribute the report in Cambodia.

Son Chhay, an opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker, said he doubted that the attempts to ban and confiscate the report will be effective since it is available on the Internet in both Cambodian and English languages.

He said the government would be better off acting on the report's recommendations to stop the plunder and investigate those involved in the illegal logging activities.

The report alleges that tycoons, relatives of Hun Sen and senior military and police officers and ministers closely linked to the prime minister are illegally felling some of the country's last, once-great forests.

International donors, who bankroll the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, do virtually nothing to stop the plunder, the group said.

"When are the donors going to start addressing the asset-stripping, Mafioso behavior of the current regime?" Simon Taylor, the Global Witness director, said in a statement Friday.

In an interview ahead of the release of the report, Taylor described the logging business as "part of a massive asset stripping for the benefit of a small kleptocratic elite.

"The forests of Cambodia have been ransacked over the past decade by this mafia with little or no benefit flowing down to the ordinary people," he said.

The report specifically focused on the Seng Keang Company, the country's most powerful logging syndicate headed by Dy Chouch, Hun Sen's first cousin.

Dy Chouch, along with his ex-wife Seng Keang, an intimate friend of the Hun Sen family, and her brother Seng Kok Heang, runs the company which Global Witness says is illegally taking timber by the truck loads from Prey Long under the guise of a rubber plantation development scheme.

Prey Long, located in the central province of Kompong Thom, is the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in mainland Southeast Asia and home to endangered wildlife, including elephants, tigers, the Asiatic black bear and gaurs, a type of ox.

The land was awarded to Seng Keang Company by Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun, brother-in-law of one of the company's business partners who is related to Ty Sokun, director-general of the Forestry Administration and an adviser to Hun Sen.

Ty Sokun has called Global Witness staffers "insane, unprofessional people" with no knowledge of forestry, and said their report was deceptive.

Global Witness has monitored Cambodia's forests for the past 12 years and was expelled from the country in 2005 after the government became annoyed by its constant criticisms.
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A high-tech, luxurious base for exploring Cambodia

Siem Reap, the increasingly popular base for visitors to Angkor Wat, is beginning to feel a little like the Las Vegas of Cambodia, with one showy hotel after another being built.

THE LOCATION

Though you'll be tempted not to leave the grounds of the Hotel de la Paix, except for excursions to Angkor Wat and other temples, much of what Siem Reap has to offer -- the Old Market selling Cambodian handicrafts and the late-night hangouts on aptly named Bar Street -- is within easy walking distance.

THE HOTEL

Even the standard rooms are huge: a soaring loft space with a large seating area, a comfortable, spacious bed on a wooden frame, and a terrazzo bathtub big enough for two, as well as a walk-in shower. The floor-to-ceiling windows are perfect if you are overlooking the lushly landscaped, lagoonlike pool -- but a little unnerving if you are facing the street, and throw open the curtains in the morning to find yourself face to face with workmen on the construction site across the road. The high-tech rooms come with a TV, a DVD player and even a fully loaded iPod. No clocks, however.

The hotel has a small, but well-appointed gym, plus a superb spa. The excellent -- and addictive -- massages start with a foot scrubbing and end with a warm cup of herbal tea, sending you off to your room in a haze of woozy contentment. The hotel has Wi-Fi and a limited room service menu. Most guests will want to eat in the comfortable main restaurant.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Rooms start at about $190 a night, and a particularly good deal is the Experiences Connect package, starting at $639, which includes a three-night stay for two, guided tours of the market and the temples and dinner at the hotel restaurant, Meric.

Hotel de la Paix, Sivutha Bd., Siem Reap. (011-855-63) 966-000; www.hoteldelapaixangkor.com.
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