Drug Center Plan Revives Deal With Tycoon

When drug czar Ke Kim Yan announced on Monday that the government would soon start construction on what would be Cambodia’s largest detention center for drug addicts, he was dusting off plans from six years ago.

Mr. Kim Yan was also reviving plans that could start supplying one of the country’s wealthiest and best-connected business moguls, Mong Reththy, with a steady source of cheap labor for his local plantation.

On Monday, Mr. Kim Yan, who chairs the National Authority for Combating Drugs (NACD), said those who finished their treatment at the new center in Preah Sihanouk province could find paid work on Mr. Reththy’s nearby rubber and palm oil plantation.

He did not mention that Mr. Reththy, a ruling party lawmaker with a close relationship with Prime Minister Hun Sen, had donated the 20 hectares of land the new center would sit on back in 2009, when the center was first proposed.

“There are many jobs they can do,” Mr. Reththy said this week. “There is the processing factory, plantation work, raising animals and growing vegetables. But we won’t force anyone to work. If they finish their treatment and want to work, we will cooperate with the state.”

The CPP senator said he was merely being benevolent.

“Everyone knows that I do everything to protect and develop the country,” he added. “Whatever I can do, I will help.”

In early 2010, just after the government first announced its plans for the center, Human Rights Watch released a damning report based on interviews with several former detainees of Cambodia’s existing drug detention centers. They said that physical abuse and forced labor, often unpaid and sometimes outside the centers for private individuals, were common.

Pin Sokhom, drug project coordinator for the NGO Mith Samlanh, said on Thursday that more accounts of forced labor from released detainees had emerged since the Human Rights Watch report—most recently about a year ago—but could not be verified.

“Sometimes the people just say, but we don’t have proof,” he said.

NACD secretary-general Meas Vyrith said that drug users sent to the new center, which will eventually have a capacity of 2,000 people, would not be put to work during their detention and treatment.

“When they get better we will let them find work outside,” he said. “But if they are sick, how can they work? They can’t do anything.”

San Chey, country director for the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability, said it remained to be seen whether the recovering addicts would get paid a fair wage for their labor.

“We really want competition in the private sector,” he said.

Mr. Chey said the scheme could help recovering addicts get back on their feet and avoid relapse by handing them a steady job. But he said the government was also handing one of its own a golden opportunity to burnish his public persona—and the CPP’s in turn—as benefactor of the poor and desperate.

“It is a promotion of the Mong Reththy image,” Mr. Chey said.

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