- A Cambodian tycoon notorious for his association with illegal logging has expanded his grip over the country’s largest national park, with a swath of forest awarded to his son’s rubber company.
- This gives Ly Yong Phat, a ruling party senator, and his family members effective control of tens of thousands of hectares of land inside Botum Sakor National Park.
- The carving up of the park, awarded in parcels to politically connected tycoons, has led to widespread deforestation that’s driven both people and wildlife out of Botum Sakor.
- Longtime residents evicted by Ly Yong Phat’s various operations in the park have protested to demand their land back, but to no avail, with many even being jailed for their activism.
BOTUM SAKOR, Cambodia — Once Cambodia’s largest national park, Botum Sakor has shriveled under the gaze of tycoons, whose parcels of land have swallowed up more than 80% of the entire park since 1998.
This land rush has seen a 28% decrease in forest across the 182,342-hectare (450,577-acre) park between 2001 and 2022. According to Global Forest Watch, some 45,600 hectares (112,700 acres) of tree cover vanished during those 21 years, as tycoons and political allies of longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen carved up the coastal protected area in Cambodia’s southwestern Koh Kong province.
Key among these political allies is Ly Yong Phat, a multimillionaire Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) senator, an adviser to Hun Sen, and president of the Oknha Association — a union for Cambodia’s many tycoons, or Oknha — who has been awarded 16,275 hectares (40,216 acres) of Botum Sakor National Park since 2008.
The senator has acquired tens of thousands of hectares of land across Koh Kong and Kampong Speu provinces, mostly for plantations operated by companies run by his wife, Kim Heang, and their five children.
In January this year, another concession handed a 6,234-hectare (15,405-acre) plot of Botum Sakor to a company where Ly Phoonrat, the youngest son of the senator, serves as a director.
King of Koh Kong
A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2007 dubbed Ly Yong Phat “the king of Koh Kong”; in the wake of his takeover of the coastal province, which he was specifically tasked with developing by Hun Sen, the expansion of the senator’s vast business empire has seen forests across the Cardamom Mountains melt away.
These close relations with the Hun family gave him almost exclusive access to natural resources such as timber, sand and land in a province that they were, at least once upon a time, in abundance.
This, combined with Ly Yong Phat’s Thai-Khmer heritage which has earned him allies across Koh Kong, has given Ly Yong Phat a fearsome reputation among residents in Botum Sakor National Park who have said they fear tycoons “the same way they [do] tigers.”
There are no tigers left in Botum Sakor now, only tycoons. But to both residents and the national park, the tycoons are arguably more dangerous.
Few tycoons have such a reputation for forced evictions or environmental vandalism as Ly Yong Phat; much of the senator’s wealth is reportedly earned through his ties to the illicit timber trade and through plantations that forced villagers from their land.
Since Ly Yong Phat was granted his first 12,178-hectare (30,092-acre) concession inside Botum Sakor on Sept. 5, 2008, the senator set about earning his reputation as a prolific logger.
Between 2008 and 2022, Global Forest Watch shows that the national park lost some 37,100 hectares (91,700 acres) of forest cover. While it would be impossible to determine how much of this was the handiwork of Ly Yong Phat or those who worked for him, the logs neatly stacked up by the senator within his Kiri Sakor Special Economic Zone in Botum Sakor numbered so many that they’re easily visible in Google Earth satellite imagery from 2012.
Two years prior, on April 13, 2010, Ly Yong Phat’s eponymous LYP Group received another 4,097-hectare (10,124-acre) concession that adjoined onto the Kiri Sakor SEZ, but no express purpose or plan for the development of the land was made public prior to it being declassified from protected forest — nor was any environmental impact assessment.
Path to a dynasty cut through Botum Sakor’s last pocket of forest
In recent months, Ly Yong Phat’s concessions have begun to expand once more. In early December 2022, roads leading directly to the 4,097-hectare LYP Group concession were cut through what is arguably the last, best patch of forest in Botum Sakor.
By the start of May 2023, three new roads totaling some 45 kilometers (28 miles) linked Ly Yong Phat’s concession in the north of the national park to Union Road, a paved four-lane highway that cuts through the entirety of Botum Sakor National Park, connecting it to the rest of Koh Kong province.
The most eastern of the two roads coming from inside Ly Yong Phat’s concession has since been revealed as demarcation borders that carve out the 6,234-hectare concession awarded in January, according to a newly released Jan. 11, 2023, subdecree that degazetted the protected land and awarded it to Koh Kong Rubber, despite a 2012 moratorium on new concessions being issued.
A predominantly Thai-run firm, Koh Kong Rubber has operated in Cambodia for almost 12 years. One of the directors listed for the company is Ly Phoonrat, the youngest son of Ly Yong Phat. At the age of 33, Phoonrat was given the distinguishing title of Oknha, meaning tycoon, in July 2022, but has seemingly been groomed, along with Ly Yong Phat’s other children, to step into his father’s shoes as Cambodia looks set to witness a generational transfer of power among the ruling elite.
Beyond Koh Kong Rubber, which was incorporated in November 2011, when Phoonrat was just 22, the senator’s youngest son has mostly been involved in family ventures, barring one particularly prominent company where Phoonrat is listed as a director: Electricity Private Co. Ltd. C.E.P.
Phoonrat’s fellow directors at Electricity Private include Hun Sen’s two daughters, Hun Maly and Hun Mana — who both run powerful real estate empires — and Hun Sen’s second son, Hun Manith, Cambodia’s military intelligence chief.
Like father, like son
Neither Koh Kong Rubber nor Phoonrat could be reached for comment at press time, but security guards at the end of the new roads that connect to Ly Yong Phat’s concession — and that border his son’s new concession — said they knew little about the roads’ purpose.
“I’m working here as a guard. There are officials from the environment ministry further down the road,” said one man operating a makeshift security checkpoint consisting of a large stick.
“They don’t allow anyone to go down this road,” said the man, who declined to give his name. “It goes to the concession for [Ly Yong Phat’s] sugar company. The company built the road earlier this year. If you want to go there to see it, you’ll need to get permission from the rangers.”
The hiring of government rangers, military police and even soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) is a common phenomenon among Cambodia’s tycoons. But in Koh Kong province, Ly Yong Phat has enmeshed himself with both the political and military elite — all bonded by a shared Thai heritage — and is widely believed to retain RCAF personnel as guards for his investments, despite the Cambodian government outlawing the practice sometime around 2016.
Some 18 km (11 mi) south, where another road coming from Ly Yong Phat’s concession meets Union Road, another man who claimed to work for the tycoon said the road wasn’t accessible because it wasn’t finished.
“It’s just 2 kilometers [1.2 mi] long so far,” the man said. “It’s being built by a company at the moment, so if you want to go to the company’s concession in Botum Sakor, you can’t go this way.”
The man declined to answer questions when presented with satellite imagery that showed the road in fact runs roughly 25 km (16 mi), mostly through verdant jungle.
Emailed questions to LYP Group went unanswered and calls to phone numbers listed by the Ministry of Commerce as registered to the tycoon’s eponymous company either didn’t connect or were not answered.
A decade of protesting Ly Yong Phat
Despite the vast swaths of land that Ly Yong Phat’s business empire has taken from the Cardamoms, the promises of jobs for local communities, international trade and investment in basic amenities that concessionaires have made have largely failed to materialize.
“[With] Oknha Ly Yong Phat’s development projects [it’s] seen that [he] always abuses human rights and affects the environment and natural resources,” said San Mala, an environmental activist who was imprisoned in 2015 for 10 months and 15 days after being involved in protests against sand mining operations in Koh Kong, including those owned by Ly Yong Phat.
“He’s a businessman who subjects the residents of Koh Kong to many different impacts due to his development projects,” Mala added.
Those who had lost their homes to Ly Yong Phat’s sprawling business empire took their grievances to the Ministry of Land Management in Phnom Penh on April 6, 2023.
Hun Khon, 56, was born in Botum Sakor National Park and lived there his whole life.
“The village chief and the commune chief came to tell me I needed to move off my farm. The old land that we lived on was cleared by Ly Yong Phat’s company in 2006,” Khon said. “The local officials, they told us we would get a large plot of land to farm, but they lied to us, we never got any compensation — my wife and my nine children.”
According to Khon, some 7,000 families were affected by Ly Yong Phat’s sugarcane plantations, which span across Koh Kong and Kampong Speu provinces and have been implicated in gross human rights abuses. But Khon represented just one of the 243 families who had come in from across the Cardamoms to protest land lost.
This was not their first protest, but with every year that passed, hope of a resolution from the government — which has largely ignored his petitions and protests, Khon added — was running out.
“We lost our land, we need it for farming, for our children, so we came to Phnom Penh to find a solution,” he said. “Nothing gets done, though. All I want is my land back. We’ve seen that Ly Yong Phat stopped growing sugarcane five or six years ago. We used to work for him after he took our land, but now we have no jobs and no land.”
Chuntey Sreykhan, 36, said she had left home at 5 a.m. to participate in the protest, noting that they had made the same journey on March 29 to deliver their petition to the ministry and that April 6 was the date that officials told them to return to see the results.
“We have no hope left, but we just have to wait,” she said, while plainclothes police officers took photos of her talking to reporters. “I cannot count the number of times we have come here to protest, but still they [the government] cannot find a solution for us.”
Since losing her land to Ly Yong Phat in 2006, Sreykhan moved from Botum Sakor to Sre Ambel district in Koh Kong, but her family couldn’t afford to buy enough land to farm and she said was worried for her family’s future as she has no training for work beyond agriculture and construction.
“There’s no respect for us from the ministry,” she said. “We are angry. Why do they do this to us?”
Chea Lu, a 49-year-old woman who lost her land to Ly Yong Phat in 2011 when his sugarcane operations moved to Kampong Speu province, also said officials had been indifferent to the problems faced by these communities.
“My children had to stop studying so they could work for $5 a day on Ly Yong Phat’s plantation. We lost our land to him, now our children must work for him so we can survive,” she said. “Then when we complain, officials lie to us, they don’t care.
“Please write about our protest,” Lu added. “Please tell people.”
Two months after the protest, 10 of the complainants were charged with incitement and nine of them are currently in pretrial detention at Koh Kong provincial prison, which rights advocates say is at 300% capacity as inmates are crammed in.
This is the same prison where a Mongabay investigation in May revealed an illegal logging operation that appears to be exploiting prison labor.
Government silent as forest’s future looks bleak
The transformation of Botum Sakor National Park is felt not just by the communities who have been evicted from the park, but also by the wildlife, given that Botum Sakor was once a hotspot for biodiversity.
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus), Malayan sun bears (Helarctos malayanus), Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus), pileated gibbons (Hylobates pileatus), Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica), fishing cats (Prionailurus viverrinus) and giant ibises (Thaumatibis gigantea) could once be found in the national park, but the loss of habitat brought about by the privatization of the majority of the park has seen residents — both human and wildlife — forced out.
Lou Vanny, program manager at Fauna & Flora Cambodia, said there are approximately 20 elephants left in Botum Sakor, but that the fragmentation of the landscape has resulted in much of the elephants’ habitat being lost. “We suggest that development should be balanced with the conservation needs of the area, working together with the private sector to minimize unwanted negative impacts,” he added.
Meanwhile, yet more investors pile in to take what few parcels of land remain.
“We see that Botum Sakor National Park is gradually cut and handed over to the private sector,” said Mala, the environmental activist, pointing to the ongoing clearing of forest in Botum Sakor at the hands Royal Group, Cambodia’s largest conglomerate, headed by another key ally of Hun Sen, to make way for a new special economic zone inside the park. “And if we really look [at whether] the national park zone is protected, in reality, we see that the government only cuts land from the national park to [give to] the private sector.”
Adding to the private sector takeover of Botum Sakor National Park, the Koh Kong provincial administration in December 2021 announced it had given the green light for a 6,145-hectare (15,185-acre) “multipurpose zone” inside the park. Officials were quoted in local media at the time as saying the zone would include at least one five-star hotel, along with other tourism facilities.
The concession was awarded to Anco Group, a local conglomerate owned by Kok An who, like Ly Yong Phat, is also a sitting CPP senator and a Thai-Cambodian tycoon with a similar reputation, particularly in his native Koh Kong. Kok An’s son, Phu Sae Ping, is married to Ly Yong Phat’s daughter, Ly Yaowalak, further intertwining the fates of two of the province’s most powerful families.
But in the 18 months since Kok An’s latest venture was announced publicly, no progress has been seen on the ground and no documentation of an environmental impact assessment or even a map highlighting the proposed project’s location have been released.
Mithona Puthong, provincial governor of Koh Kong, said she was busy and hung up on reporters when reached for comment; deputy provincial governor Sok Sothy said he didn’t know about any of the developments taking place in Botum Sakor National Park and directed reporters to the Ministry of Environment.
When sent satellite imagery of the new roads and questions regarding their purpose, ownership, legality and environmental impact, Neth Pheaktra, spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, did not respond.
While Ly Phoonrat’s Koh Kong Rubber has taken one of the slots carved into the last pocket of Botum Sakor, it’s still possible that Kok An’s 6,145-hectare concession could be allocated between the more westward roads that have shot out of Ly Yong Phat’s concessions in the past eight months.
Given the familial ties formed by their children, Ly Yong Phat and Kok An sharing adjoining concessions would reflect the predicted dynastical handover of wealth.
Calls to Anco Group’s head office in Phnom Penh went unanswered, as did calls to a number listed as being registered to Kok An in the Ministry of Commerce’s records.
As such, details regarding Kok An’s potential investment zone in Botum Sakor remain scarce. Previous ventures connected to the senator have been steeped in allegations of human trafficking, which have more recently made their way across the provincial border from the coastal city of Sihanoukville to Koh Kong.
Nobody connected to any of the companies involved in the transformation of Botum Sakor National Park, nor anyone from either the local or national government, would speak about the park’s future — although the Koh Kong provincial administration announced in June 2023 that a further 7,126 hectares (17,609 acres) of the park could be turned into yet another multiuse zone with a focus on ecotourism and agrotourism. It’s unclear who’s behind this project or whether it will ever materialize, but space is running out in the park.
Mala said both the silence and lack of publicly available information regarding investment projects in Cambodia was contributing to a broader lack of transparency, in which corruption breeds.
“We see that in every large and small development project in Cambodia, the government has never publicly shown the relevant documents, especially the environmental impact assessment reports,” he said. “This hasn’t reflected the transparency, responsibility, [accountability] and good governance [needed] in managing [and] preserving the natural resources.”
Many of these projects, particularly in the Cardamoms, rely on extracting or exploiting natural resources, Mala added.
“And the absence of transparency is also contributing to corruption, especially [making] it hard to ensure that those projects truly contribute to building and developing our country of Cambodia,” Mala said. “In the past, we see that every development project that relates to the extraction of natural resources, the country generates less income, while the real profits go into the pocket of wealthy and powerful groups.”
Banner image: The new roads that cut through Botum Sakor’s last, best section of forest signal a slow, sad demise for what was once Cambodia’s largest national park. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.
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