Cambodia: Calls to Cooperate in Sand Export Data

VEN RATHAVONG AND ROS CHANVEASNA Khmer Times 22 Nov 16;

Civil society members and Ministry of Mines and Energy officials came together recently to discuss discrepancies in the export figures of sand from Cambodia to Singapore, after 47 NGOs wrote an open letter early this month to the ministry seeking an explanation.

The letter from civil society groups was in response to UN data showing discrepancies in sand exports from Cambodia over the last 10 years. The UN Commodity Statistics Trade (UN Comtrade) database shows 2.8 million tons of exports to Singapore, while Singapore reported 72.7 million tons of imports from Cambodia.

Secretary of State and ministry spokesman Dith Tina welcomed the presence of 13 NGOs and chided the other 34 who were not present. He said they were more preoccupied with other business than dealing with the issues they raised in the open letter.

The meeting quickly proceeded to focus on the UN Comtrade database. Of the 13 NGOs present, only five actually assessed the database.

And among the five, none had read the “read me first" section that laid out UN Comtrade’s disclaimer and copyright policy. The disclaimer explained the limit of the database, while the copyright policy indicated that the data could not “constitute acceptable proof.”

Mr. Tina confirmed that after receiving the open letter, the ministry took action immediately by re-inspecting all documents related to requests from companies to export the stipulated volumes of sand. However, Mr. Tina added that the ministry could not reconcile the sand volumes in its documents with that declared in the UN Comtrade database.

In efforts to explain the limit of the UN Comtrade database, Mr. Tina showed the NGOs present the discrepancies between the actual volume and quantity of trade, recorded by Singapore’s other trading partners in the sand business, and the figures that were presented in the database.

Despite these shortcomings, the ministry did not rule out other possibilities for the discrepancies.

According to an interview with a local media outlet, Meng Saktheara – another ministry spokesman and secretary of state – explained that the difference between the ministry’s recoded figures and that in the UN Comtrade database could be due to possible illegal movement of sand to Singapore. He also did not rule out corruption and technical errors while recording the data.

Mr. Tina told the NGOs present that the ministry welcomed reliable documents that could prove that companies or individuals had under declared sand exports overseas. He assured them that the ministry would take action against these culprits.

“We have received complaints from civil society but none are based on reliable and accurate information,” he said.

“They should not use UN Comtrade data without written consent from the UN Division of Statistics, as stated in UN Comtrade’s copyright policy and the database’s disclaimer,” stressed Mr. Tina.

To date, nine companies have licenses to carry out sand dredging and export the sand overseas. The companies are: Direct Access, International Rainbow, Viniyok Phum Knhom, Udom Seima Peanikch Industry and Mines, L.Y.P Group, DDML Construction, Thanin Tharith Import Export, Chhay Chingheang Import Export Group, and Vitanak Reachny.

At the end of the three-hour meeting, the NGOs requested the ministry to reconsider a blanket ban on sand dredging.

Mr. Tina replied that though the ministry had ordered a temporary ban on sand exports, the overall impact of such a ban on the economy had to be taken into account.

“The royalties collected by the ministry on the volume of sand mined is small. But there are also other taxes and duties that we collect and the income from the trade that contributes to the country’s GDP,” he said.

Mr. Tina concluded the meeting on a positive note and promised more fruitful cooperation with NGOs on the issue.

“We can record [sand export volumes] together and that would be easy. Then we can find a way to input the data together in order to avoid discrepancies in the database,” he told the NGOs. “If we decide to count together, we can set the plan and work together.”

San Chey, executive director for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability said that this was not the last dialogue between the ministry and NGOs.

“Civil societies are happy for this kind of meeting and clarification from each other related to sand mining, especially sand dredging in Koh Kong province,” he said.

“We will cooperate with each other to collect more proof related to sand exports. This is a good sign,” said Mr. Chey, adding that NGOs will study closely the records of UN Comtrade and Singapore Customs, and their methods of recording and inputting data to the database.

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