A gold mine shrouded in secrecy

Residents in Preah Vihear province living near a gold mine say their land has been eaten away by mining companies. Who is behind the operations and why soldiers are protecting them, however, remains a mystery

Residents in Preah Vihear province living near a gold mine say their land has been eaten away by mining companies. Who is behind the operations and why soldiers are protecting them, however, remains a mystery

Yem Phart, a Kouy indigenous villager in Trapaing Tuntem village in Preah Vihear’s Rovieng district, broke down in tears as she recalled her struggles over the last two years with a gold mining company operating within shouting distance of her house.

Phart (pictured above), who settled in the area in 1994, said she received 6 hectares of land in 2000 and another 6 hectares in 2011 from the local commune chief – a concession that was backed up with land titles. But, she said, a gold mining company also in the area since 1994 moved onto her land in 2015.

That company, which the Ministry of Mines and Energy says is called Delcom, has in the last year been expanding in the area, despite its licence having expired in 2016. According to villagers, the company’s growing reach has encroached on residents’ land, leading to a host of disputes, two of which were resolved in July.

While villagers, activists from environmental organisation Mother Nature and the Mines Ministry all say the company mining in the area is Delcom, a National Assembly member who said he used to be the owner of the company alleged that Delcom pulled out a decade ago.

Repeated attempts to obtain records of the company’s previous licences – and its ownership – were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, the government and representatives with the Defence Ministry were unable to explain why, on a recent visit, soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces were stationed within the company limits, as locals and activists have long maintained.

Khet Yi, Phart’s husband, on land given to them.

Khet Yi, Phart’s husband, on land given to them. Heng Chivoan

For residents like Phart, the presence of the mining operation has been a constant source of stress. She said she took out several loans from a microfinance agency to grow potatoes and cassava, first borrowing $2,000, then $4,000, followed by another $6,000. She also used part of the land for small-scale gold mining, with the hope of pulling the family out of poverty.

Her investments were spoiled in 2015, however, when the company allegedly bulldozed her farm.

Phart is one of two families whose land conflicts were recently resolved by Preah Vihear provincial authorities soon after the NGO Mother Nature posted a video on its Facebook page on July 10 featuring her struggle with the company.

Four days later, on July 14, provincial authorities convened a high-level meeting with members of the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit, officials from the Land Management Ministry and district police and soldiers, among others, Soum Moth, the chief of Romtom commune, said at the time.

At that meeting, Phart was granted 12 hectares of land at a different location near the mining operation. A second family also received seven hectares of land.

In the video posted to Facebook, Mother Nature claimed that villagers had pointed the finger at Hing Bun Heang, the commander of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Personal Bodyguard Unit, as being behind the mining company.

One of the sites, which operates all day and all night.

One of the sites, which operates all day and all night. Heng Chivoan

Villagers, soldiers at one of the mining sites and a local official made similar claims to reporters. The ministry, however, said Bun Heang was not listed in documentation and that, despite many people at the site saying three companies were working in the area, only Delcom was officially involved.

The ministry said it was not able to provide the name of the licence holder.

Soeng Sophary, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Commerce, said that it was likely that Delcom’s ownership didn’t appear in the government’s business directory because it had been registered many years before and had not been added to the online system.

Cambodian People’s Party National Assembly member Thavy Nhem this week claimed that he was the former owner of Delcom Cambodia Pte Ltd, which he said was “the original company” that signed an agreement with the Ministry of Mines and Energy in 1994.

“But that company is no longer there,” he said. “We don’t know who is there.”

He also claimed that a company by the name of Delcom Services, based in Malaysia, has “nothing” to do with Delcom Cambodia, although a 2005 press release said that Delcom Cambodia was a joint venture with Malaysian companies.

A representative with Deleum Berhad, formerly Delcom Services in Malaysia, declined to comment.

Meng Saktheara, secretary of state at the Ministry of Mines and Energy, last week said the ministry was dealing with Delcom as the licence holder.

“Delcom had received an industrial mining licence for gold mining in that area [or] region, but the licence was expired,” he said. “Currently, the company is in the process of renewing the license.”

He added that the company is allowed to continue operating while it is renewing its licence, which may take time because it needs to fulfil certain requirements, including resolving outstanding disputes.

“There is an issue conflicting in land use with local people, who claim to have land rights,” he said.

Saktheara was unable to answer additional questions and repeated attempts by email and phone to obtain documentation of the mining operations were unsuccessful. Spokesman Yos Monirath said that his staff would gather information to respond, but more than two weeks after the initial requests, he said that the ministry still needed time to answer.

Early on a recent morning in July, the fatigues of soldiers were hanging outside houses around one of the three mining sites. At a different site, reporters saw at least three people dressed in RCAF uniforms standing inside the company’s entrance.

One of them said the company they were stationed at belonged to Hun Seng Ny, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s youngest sister. He then pointed to the site next door, which is connected to the land disputes with nearby residents, and said it belonged to Bun Heang. The soldier requested anonymity out of fear for his safety.

One of the gold mining sites in Trapaing Tuntem.

One of the gold mining sites in Trapaing Tuntem. Heng Chivoan

Another soldier, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said he too worked to protect the company allegedly owned by Hun Seng Ny.

“When we go out of the company, we do not dress in soldier uniforms because journalists can see and take pictures and report it,” he said.

He added that the company allegedly owned by Bun Heang had many soldiers because it was larger. Every cottage, or security house, has two to three soldiers.

He said they get paid $250 per month, and if the company has a fruitful month, they get a “bonus”.

Reporters were not allowed onto the premises, but Chinese workers could be seen operating in at least two of the sites, working nonstop day and night. The soldier said that the gold ore was picked up by large semi-trucks in packages, each weighing 60 to 70 kilograms.

Bun Heang couldn’t be reached for comment, and Ith Thaorath, a spokesman for the Bodyguard Unit, denied the allegations.

Un Chenda, Preah Vihear provincial governor, denied any connection to Bun Heang and Seng Ny, dismissing the claims as “rumour”.

“I have visited [the companies] there, and normally, there are soldiers protecting and [providing] security for the companies because they have operated legally,” he said, adding that Chinese investors are behind all the companies operating in the area and identifying two of them as Delcom and Cambodia WS Mining Industry Holding Ltd.

“There is no involvement with leaders,” he said, adding that all land disputes had been resolved, despite villagers’ claims that there were still around 14 more disputes.

Some of the 12 hectares of land given to Yem Phart and her husband, Khet Yi, following a recent meeting involving a range of government agencies.

Some of the 12 hectares of land given to Yem Phart and her husband, Khet Yi, following a recent meeting involving a range of government agencies. Heng Chivoan

Chhum Socheat, spokesman for the Ministry of Defence, said the ministry doesn’t allow soldiers to work for private companies, and said he was unaware of this particular case and didn’t know why soldiers would have been present.

“We have not received a report. If we have a report, we’ll investigate that,” he said.

Phnom Dek Village Chief Prak Thorn, meanwhile, said soldiers provide security for all three mining sites. He added that there was a swap in ownership in 2015 at one of the companies to Bun Heang, and that large RCAF trucks transporting equipment are a common sight in the area.

One RCAF truck with the Ministry of Defence logo and the name of the ministry on the side – as well as the Mandarin word for “explode” painted on the back – was seen by reporters travelling away from the village where the companies are located.

“We don’t know what they carry,” Seng Chin, a representative of a group of residents within Tropang Tuntem village, said after the truck drove by.

“We want authorities to intervene. People continue to have problems.”

Chin claimed Delcom took six hectares of his land, which he used for farming, and he estimated that there are some 20 families in total who have lost land to the company.

“What we have learned is that they wanted to give compensation, but we haven’t received any compensation,” he said. “We are also scared. So we will wait and see. If they don’t give compensation, we will join hands together.”

He said he received his land title in 2005 and hoped that now that Phart had received compensation, more would follow.

A truck with RCAF and Defence Ministry tags on a road from the mining site.

A truck with RCAF and Defence Ministry tags on a road from the mining site. Heng Chivoan

Thorn, the village chief who attended the high-level meeting where Phart’s dispute was resolved, said the meeting might have been prompted by the Mother Nature video.

“It could be the video that caused the province to come to solve the problem,” he said. “Delcom is expanding, as well as the other two [companies]; that is why they have issues with the land.”

“We don’t know how they operate,” he said. “Since Delcom began to operate [in 1994], we have not seen how they work.”

Alex Gonzelez-Davidson, a co-founder of Mother Nature, said the lack of transparency in the mining operations was typical in Cambodia.

“Those behind Delcom and the gold processing plant have something very obscure to hide,” he said. “The use of armed forces in dodgy operations throughout Cambodia is a fact that no one in their right mind can deny.”

Phart, meanwhile, said she was pleased that her case was addressed after years of distress, but noted that the problems in the village were by no means over.

“I’m happy with the solution, but I was unhappy with the way they destroyed my plantation,” she said. “There are many people, not only me, who are victims of land-grabbing.”

Hun Vannak, a Mother Nature activist who worked on the video, said the NGO would work to educate the other residents involved in land disputes.

“The most important thing is that they are afraid of the company,” he said. “Especially the powerful man behind the company.”