Singapore has been a major backer of Cambodia and its post-war reconstruction. But much of the relationship has been built on sand. The island-state desperately needs clean, salt free sand for its building industry, and Cambodia has no shortage of the stuff.
But in its rush to purchase sand on an industrial scale, Singapore and Cambodian authorities have faced a barrage of criticism over environmental damage, while enormous discrepancies in reporting procedures have emerged and cast a pall over the sector.
Cambodia, perhaps attempting to downplay the environmental impact, insists that somewhere between 2.7 million and 16.2 million tons of sand left the country for Singapore between 2007 and 2015.
Singapore, however, tells a different story. It says 73.6 million tons of sand was imported from Cambodia by Singapore, and this was reported to the Commodity Trade Statistics Database at the United Nations.
Phnom Penh said the value of sand sold was $5 million while Singapore said it spent $752 million on Cambodia sand. That has prompted demands for a total ban on sand exports from almost 50 civil society groups.
Cambodians, particularly those displaced by dredging operations, diplomats, journalists, and environmentalists were hoping for some clarification on this issue when Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sat down earlier this week for a round of talks. None was forthcoming.
Instead, amid much fanfare, the two countries signed two memorandums of understanding (MoU) in regards to health and vocational training.
One MOU will renew the working relationship between Singapore’s Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Cambodia’s Calmette Hospital. The other will enable 80 Cambodian technical and vocational “master trainers” to be trained in information communications technology, electronics and automotive technology over a 24 month period.
That’s all well and good.
But a few words from Singapore on its sand operations would not have gone astray, particularly in a region where the integrity of government is under constant scrutiny.
Singapore customs data backed the numbers reported to the UN, casting doubts over the effectiveness of a ban by Hun Sen in 2009 on sand exports from dredged rivers and on marine sand too. The exception to the rule was sand that obstructs waterways.
Reports of large-scale dredging operations have since continued.
Mother Nature, an environmental NGO, and its founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, has said they believe that the true export figures were being withheld to protect the likes of Ly Yong Phat, a ruling party senator with business assets valued in the billions of dollars through his LYP Group.
Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia in February 2015.
“The government should immediately place a moratorium on all further sand extraction activities along coastal estuaries of Cambodia. Then relevant government authorities should take a trip to fishing communities affected by the mining and go from house to house apologizing for these last nine years of thievery,” he told the Phnom Penh Post in October.
“After, they should publicly apologize to the entire nation for this total scam, and then start returning the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been pillaged from the nation.”
That won’t happen.
Ly Yong Phat prefers not to speak with Western media and has to date declined to comment on the allegations reported widely in the press.
The senator often makes headlines for controversial reasons. Early last year it was revealed he had donated a big chunk of prime real estate for construction of a memorial – 16 floors high – to be dedicated to Hun Sen and his legacy.
The memorial will be built on 15 hectares on the peninsula that divides the Mekong River and Tonle Sap and stand as high as the nearby Sokha Hotel. Perhaps fittingly, the peninsula is made of sand.
Singapore is not about to jeopardize its reputation as a first class business destination over controversies like Cambodian sand, even if its need for the building material is great. That is something for Hun Sen to consider when the next round of import/export figures are announced.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt