Opposition Queries Focus on Forestry, Customs

Opposition lawmaker Sam Rainsy on Tuesday demanded to know why forest revenues haven’t increased despite orders to end illegal logging, and why an import-inspection company has suspended its work with the government.

“Thanks to illegal logging, the country’s forest revenues for the first half of 1999 were less than $2 million,” Sam Rainsy maintained in a statement—a fraction of what the government projected it would generate.

“And recently, the finance minister, Keat Chhon, said the government was losing up to $2 million per month in revenue be­cause of smuggling. This is almost certainly connected to the [absence of an active] pre-shipping inspection service in Ca­mbodia.”

The two questions are the most recent in a series of weekly questions posed by the opposition party. According to article 96 of the Constitution, the government must respond to lawmakers’ questions within seven days. But Sam Rainsy reiterated that he has received no “adequate” answers to any of his questions regarding the economy despite the fact Prime Minister Hun Sen calls his government an “economic government.”

The first question refers to the collection of revenue from logging companies with legal concessions. Although the government projected much higher figures for 1999, some concessionaires earlier this year balked at paying after the government unilaterally quadrupled timber royalty rates.

The second inquiry refers to Switzerland-based Societe Generale de Surveil­lance’s announcement in July it would accept no further applications for pre-shipping inspections until further notice. While the company is continuing to report findings on earlier import applications, the opposition lawmaker said that SGS has “effectively withdrawn from Cambodia.”

“The official reason given for SGS’ withdrawal from Cambodia has been late payments by the customs department,” Sam Rainsy said in an interview. “But I think we should not be content to accept the official explanation. A fuller accounting is needed.”

SGS managers refused to comment Tuesday, noting the company’s chief executive is out of the country. But, said Leow Boon Hwi, a quality manager in the company’s economic affairs division: “I think the notice in the lobby [announcing a suspension of registered import advice] speaks for itself.”

Ministry of Finance officials said Tuesday they either were unfamiliar with Sam Rainsy’s statement or couldn’t comment.

In the three years since the government signed a five-year deal with SGS, largely under pressure from international lending groups, relations between the two have been marked by distrust. At the same time, however, finance officials have tended to publicly support the company’s presence as a safeguard against corruption.

Sam Rainsy suggested government pressure to “turn a blind eye” to dubious imports, such as a Taiwanese shipment of toxic waste that arrived in Sihanouk­ville last year, alerted SGS to the risks of operating in Cambodia.

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