O’YADAW DISTRICT, Ratanakkiri province – Nobody here seems to know much about Company 72.
Locals know they are living on land the company cultivates under a government-granted economic land concession (ELC)—some have taken menial jobs tending the crops, all have seen lush forests decimated to make way for them—but beyond that, Company 72 remains mostly a mystery.
“We don’t know the background of the company; we have no information, just the name,” Sev H’vinh, an ethnic Jarai farmer, said in September, looking out over a tract of land in Paknhai commune that he said belonged to his wife until Company 72 came along.
“The Vietnamese guys just arrived in 2013 and started bulldozing,” he said.
The history of this 20,000-hectare ELC is complicated. So, too, are the histories of three other concessions, which, along with it, run end-to-end from a 31-km frontier along the Vietnamese border, northwest through three districts and into the heart of this farflung province.
Initially granted separately to four agribusiness ventures over the years, the concessions have since made their way into the hands of Binh Doan 15, or Corps 15, an arm of the Vietnamese People’s Army stationed across the border in Gia Lai province.
Company 72 is not the name of a business; it is a military unit. And the concessions, with their military ties, are effectively an extension of territory controlled by Vietnam.
Documents obtained from government databases show that via a series of sales and transfers, this considerable swath of Ratanakkiri —39,584 hectares, an area larger than Kep province—is now controlled by Corps 15 commanders.
Three of the concessions are linked to the Vietnamese military via their chairmen, who are identified in Vietnamese state news reports as the heads of military units with names that correspond to the companies that have taken over the concessions. Pham Van Giang, for example, is both the chairman of Aphivath Caoutchouc 72 Ratanakiri Co., Ltd., which has acquired the Rama Khmer concession, and the commander of the Vietnamese military’s Company 72.
The fourth concession is not directly linked to the Vietnamese military via commanders and chairmen. However, Vietnamese state media has espoused Company 72’s agricultural work and philanthropy on a military-controlled ELC in Bakeo district, the location of the Chea Chanrith concession, which has been acquired in full by the firm Aphivat Caoutchouc 72 Oya Dav Co., Ltd.
“This is a concern,” deputy provincial governor Nhem Sam Oeun said in a September interview, denying any previous knowledge of the Vietnamese military’s control of the concessions. ELCs, he said, “are under the management of the Agriculture Ministry and Environment Ministry, and they have the right to look into this issue. I know nothing about the transfers.”
As they are not inside protected areas, which are overseen by the Environment Ministry, the four concessions come under the purview of the Agriculture Ministry, which granted and is responsible for monitoring them. In an interview at his office in November, Eang Sophalleth, a spokesman for the Agriculture Ministry, was presented with the documents outlining how the concessions in Ratanakkiri had come to be run by the Vietnamese military.
“It would be too premature for me to answer or to acknowledge that these four companies are under the Vietnamese army,” Mr. Sophalleth said, asking reporters to refrain from publishing an article about the concessions until an intergovernmental committee completed a review of all concessions in the country.
“I have these documents from you but I have not verified [them], the committee has not verified [them],” he said.
The Vietnamese military did not respond to numerous requests for comment. The numbers listed by the Commerce Ministry for the companies that control the concessions were either not in use, or calls went unanswered.
In May 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a stop to the granting of new concessions as reports of abuse—of contracts, forests and local people—mounted. Mr. Hun Sen ordered a review of all concessions and, according to Mr. Sophalleth, outlawed transfers and sales. However, one caveat allows existing concessionaires to “find partners to join the development,” he said.
Much of the trading that consolidated the Ratanakkiri concessions in the hands of the Vietnamese People’s Army occurred in the months leading up to the moratorium. However, two months after it, in July 2012, according to Commerce Ministry filings, all shares in the northernmost of the four concessions, Veasna Investment, were handed over to a firm named 75 Rattanakiri Co., Ltd., whose chairman, Do Van Sang, is identified in Vietnamese state news reports as commander of Company 75.
Then, in August of the same year, the border-hugging Dai Dong Duong concession had all of its shares transferred to Tran Quang Hang, previously a minority shareholder, who is named in Vietnamese state media as the commander of Company 74.
Mr. Sophalleth said the Dai Dong Duong concession was due to be assessed “in the next few weeks,” while the overall evaluation, led by Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, would be completed in a “maximum of two months.” Inspectors are looking to certify that concessionaires are obeying the Land Law and honoring their agreements while contributing to the development of Cambodia, he said, but would not focus on the source of investment.
“As I know, we do not discriminate between army, business people, institutions or any countries at all. We welcome all investment in Cambodia,” Mr. Sophalleth said. “Each country has its own sovereignty, each country has its own rule of law, and whoever invests in the country must respect it. And if you don’t respect it, we have to take measures, we have to take actions.”
Totaling more than 2.14 million hectares, ELCs now cover more than half of Cambodia’s arable land, with 57 percent of that area controlled by foreign firms, according to rights group Licadho. Under heavy criticism for the mass sell-off, both locally and from abroad, Mr. Hun Sen has argued that ELCs are needed to “develop the country,” explaining the ostensible benefits—jobs, roads, schools—that they bring to the communities on which they are imposed.
But the reality for people living on or near the concessions in Ratanakkiri—many of them members of indigenous minorities whose lives revolve around the forests—is quite the opposite.
Over the years, rights groups and reporters have fielded a litany of abuse complaints against the four concessions: encroaching on communal land, destroying spirit forests and burial grounds, logging outside their boundaries, and illegally exporting luxury-grade timber across the porous border with Vietnam.
“There are a lot of impacts without adequate solutions,” said Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc.
Mr. Thy, who spends much of his time monitoring the province’s disappearing forests, said that logging in and around the four concessions peaked in 2012 and 2013, shortly after the Vietnamese military took control of them.
“Vietnamese dealers made a business of timber; some came through the companies and some connived with the companies,” he said.
Bisecting the giant swath of land now under the control of the Vietnamese military is National Road 78, which runs from the provincial capital of Banlung City to the barracks of Company 72 and Company 74 across the border, just 16 km and 26 km, respectively, from the O’Yadaw International Checkpoint.
Trucks and motorbikes loaded with luxury wood flow freely across the O’Yadaw checkpoint, though with timber baron Try Pheap’s special economic zone just down the road, only a few kilometers inside Cambodian territory, the ownership and legality of the hauls remains unclear.
Satellite imagery also shows that inside the Dai Dong Duong concession, there are dozens of roads, tracks and trails crossing the border.
“It is easy for them to go back and forth, shipping timber across the border,” Mr. Thy said.
Reporters visiting remote Ratanakkiri villages in and around the concessions in September were received mostly by smiling children and welcoming elders. In the secluded village of Krieng, however, an uneasiness filled the air. Children scuttled out of sight, mothers shut doors, and men glanced around the village, seemingly searching for reasons why visitors might be there.
About 15 km off an arterial road running through Bakeo district, Krieng is an island in a sea of cleared forest and rubber plantations—all of it inside the Chea Chanrith concession, chaired by the commander of Company 72 since April 2012.
“The land clearing started here in 2009 and reached the edge of our village,” said Rocham Moum, who previously led a losing campaign against the pillaging of the forest around the village.
The mood in Krieng, Mr. Moum said, was the result of his ethnic Tampoun community having had its identity stolen away. The forest had provided them not only with food and raw materials for shelter —it had been the resting place of their ancestors, whose spirits are believed to live on in the trees.
When the trees were cleared all the way to the edge of Krieng, Mr. Moum said, their once fervent advocacy group was disbanded. “We no longer have a forestry community because we have no forest left to protect,” he said.
The community in Krieng is not unique, however, particularly in provinces such as Ratanakkiri with dense and potentially lucrative forests.
Environmental watchdogs have for years been highlighting the potential revenue disappearing across the border in vehicles filled with timber, and the havoc wrought on indigenous communities as they watch the forests fall around them. Opposition politicians have campaigned heavily this year against alleged violations of Cambodia’s sovereignty from the east, focusing on a series of irrigation ponds dug by Vietnamese people about 500 meters into Cambodian territory on the Dai Dong Duong concession. (Much of the border area here is designated a “white zone,” having not been properly demarcated, meaning that neither side is allowed to occupy or use the land.)
Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry delivered a terse statement in June demanding that Hanoi have the ponds filled in. Hanoi promised to oblige, but, according to the opposition’s latest dispatch earlier this month, has not made good on its pledge.
A visit to an informal checkpoint just a few hundred meters from the ponds demonstrated how in this part of the country, the line between Cambodia and Vietnam can be blurred.
A Cambodian woman selling Vietnamese-labeled snacks and drinks out of a tin shack at the border had hanging in her shop a framed portrait of her young son, dressed in a Vietnamese police uniform and photoshopped onto a tropical beach.
Reporters were treated with suspicion, and left shortly after a number of half-uniformed soldiers started asking what they were doing in the area. Locals said there was only one reason to go down the road to the border: to take timber across it.
With familiar anti-Vietnamese sentiment heightened amid the opposition’s campaign to spotlight border encroachments this year, government heavyweights including Interior Minister Sar Kheng have delivered a series of speeches chastising those who privately lease land along the border to foreigners, particularly in “white zones.”
In an October letter to the governors of border provinces, Mr. Kheng said such leases were complicating efforts to demarcate the border, and that the country’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty” was at stake.
Last month, Mr. Hun Sen issued a circular outlawing further leasing of land along the border, citing “complexities” created in the ongoing process of finalizing border markings and also noting the need to protect Cambodia’s “territorial integrity and sovereignty.”
Mr. Hun Sen’s statement, which allowed for current lawful leases to be upheld, was aimed in part at “protecting the rights…and improving the livelihoods of the people along the border.”
However, despite creating many of the same complications, the rules for private leasing and ELCs appear to be vastly different.
In an interview this month, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said that private land leases and government-granted concessions would, indeed, not be treated as the same thing. General Sopheak declined to directly answer questions about whether a foreign military controlling nearly 40,000 hectares of Cambodian land was a threat to the country’s sovereignty.
“The Vietnamese military, they have the right to do business,” he said. “They can sign a contract with another country and they are under the control of the military’s high-ranking leaders in Vietnam.”
Gen. Sopheak said he agreed in general with Cambodia’s policy on ELCs, but took exception with the terms of concessions, many of which were issued for 99-year periods at just a few dollars per hectare.
“The rent must be higher and the period of time must be shorter,” he said, suggesting 30 years and $10,000 per hectare as a reasonable solution.
His grievance, he said, stemmed from the fact that Cambodia was making a mere fraction of the fortune that its neighbor is reaping from the trade in luxury timber.
“You can see that we earn only $6 million or $8 million each year” from the timber trade, Gen. Sopheak said. “They [Vietnam] don’t have big forests like us, but they do the business of timber exports and imports for $800 million each year.”
Asked where Vietnam was sourcing the timber it was feeding into a thriving international market, the general laughed and shrugged his shoulders.
“You know, that is the question,” he said.