The eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has denied involvement in a plan to develop a forest near Phnom Tamao Zoo, after an environmentalist accused him of being associated with the real estate company behind the project.
The development is not going forward in the wake of a rare order from Hun Sen earlier this month Hun Sen ending the clearance of the forest adjacent to the country’s largest zoo, following multiple appeals by environmental groups and members of the public.
But questions about Hun Manet’s involvement remain after Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, an outspoken environmental activist and founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, told RFA on Tuesday that Leng Navatra, a real estate company named after its founder, had acted on Hun Manet’s behalf.
Hun Manet, commander of the Royal Cambodia Army who has been tapped to be Hun Sen’s political successor, called the accusation that he was involved with the real estate developer a “fabricated allegation to gain political benefits.”
Phnom Tamao Forest, located roughly 25 miles (40 kilometers) south of Phnom Penh, is home to many rare and endangered species, and is the only forested eco-destination anywhere near the capital. The forest encompasses an area of more than 6,000 acres (2,450 hectares) and is home to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, established in 1995.
In April, media reported that the government had agreed to sell more than 1,200 acres (500 hectares) of the protected forest to Leng Navatra and two other companies said to be close to Hun Sen’s family.
Later reports suggested the entire area had been earmarked by the government for development, excluding the 1,000 acres (400 hectares) that contain the wildlife center.
Despite widespread protests by environmental groups and members of the indigenous communities that rely on Phnom Tamao Forest products, Leng Navatra on Aug. 1 began clearing the land and, within a week, had torn up nearly 400 hectares of trees.
Hun Manet responded to the accusation that he was involved with the project during a speech at a military event that he later posted on his Facebook page on Friday. He said that Leng Navatra was a Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) youth network teammate but that he does not have business dealings with him.
“Constructive criticism must be based on evidence for improvement, but fabricating an allegation to attack without any evidence is to gain political benefits,” Hun Manet said. “Please stop the allegation against me with Leng Navatra who is my [CPP] youth teammate.”
Deforestation is a huge environmental problem in Cambodia, driven by economic land concessions granted by the government to agro-industrial groups in the Southeast Asian nation and abroad and rampant illegal logging of wood for export.
‘His father’s footsteps’
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson was deported by Cambodian authorities in 2015 for his environmental activism. The government has denied him reentry and put him on trial in absentia, handing down a 20-month prison sentence in may 2021 for the charge of “conspiracy to incitement.”
On Friday, Gonzalez-Davidson said he stood by his previous comments, saying the information came from government sources.
“I received reliable information, but I can’t name the source. It would endanger them,” he said.
“But after reactions from Hun Manet and Leng Navatra, it is now 150% true,” he said, adding that Hun Manet was angry and had threatened him.
“I don’t regard Hun Manet as my enemy,” Gonzalez-Davidson said. “Maybe he can protect the forest, but in the past few years he has followed in his father’s footsteps.”
Analyst Kim Sok said that Hun Manet should call for an investigation into the matter.
“To clear up his name, he must undergo an investigation, and he can’t blame people who expressed concern over forest destruction,” he said. “It would not be difficult to conduct the investigation.”
On Thursday, Leng Navatra posted a video message on Facebook, denying that his company had anything to do with the government or with Hun Manet.
Leng Navatra said his original plan was to build affordable homes for poor people, and buyers would pay an installment of U.S. $30-60 a month with 61% percent discount. He also said he would build tourist attractions and infrastructure.
“[T]he government and relevant institutions allowed the development based on national interest,” he said. “They accused me of illegal logging. If I had done that, I would walk into jail myself. Accusations that I laundered money are criminal accusations.”
Leng Navatra then threatened to sue anyone who accused him of the crimes.
The same day, Hun Sen told a public gathering that anyone who wants to file lawsuits over the Phnom Tamao Zoo should sue him instead.
“[People] want to prosecute those who destroy Phnom Tamao and those who signed for the deal, please do so, please prosecute me,” Hun Sen said.
On Sunday, Hun Sen posted a message to Facebook announcing that he had decided to end destruction of the forest in response to the “many requests to the government.”
“As I am the highest responsible person of the Royal Government, I ordered the forest to be preserved near Phnom Tamao Zoo, an end to the clearing of forest land, and for the forest to be replanted where it was cleared,” he wrote.
Translated by Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.