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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Battambang soldiers enjoy the spoils of "victory"

Battambang soldiers enjoy the spoils of "victory"

BATTAMBANG - The soldier was dying, trapped under a truck which had just toppled

over a bridge that could not take the vehicle's weight. Curious villagers could do

nothing to help, only stare.

The dying man's comrades were worried about the reaction of their commander.

Worried what he would say about the logs the truck was carrying.

In Sneoung, 25 kms from Battambang, villages say that ten to 15 trucks loaded with

illegally cut wood travel over this little bridge every day.

"They're too heavy for the bridge," says one villager, though CMAC demining

engineers had just that morning fixed new planks to it. Obviously, it was not enough.

Since the Royal Army pushed down Route 10, and the offensive against the Khmer Rouge

ended in April, the flurry of trucks full of logs has not stopped. It seems the gains

made from the RCAF's push has the added bonus of opening up tracts of "new"

forested land for people - certainly soldiers - to log illegally.

Each truck is loaded with five to ten tree trunks, carted and sold to one of Battambang's

five sawmills.

Soldiers say they started to cut two months ago.

Listening to their stories, it remains unclear whether they have authorization to

log from the general chief of staff or whether they decided themselves to cut the

trees.

Some say they only cart out trees left by the Khmer Rouge.

Others say they have proper authorization from officers based in Phnom Veng. At least

one letter was seen, authorizing three trucks of wood to go down Route 10. It was

signed by the officer in charge of Pailin.

Most of the soldiers interviewed by the Post said that they cut and sold wood to

earn money to buy food, uniforms and supplies that are lacking on the front line.

"All the divisions based in Phnom Veng are cutting trees, " said Kham Vuth,

a border policeman based at Svay Sor on Route 10, about 10 kms from Phnom Veng.

"They need planks to build hospitals, offices and proper camps, better than

the tents we have now," he says.

However villagers interviewed said that they rarely see planks coming back from town.

As Vuth was speaking, another truck full of logs stopped to pick up stacks of bamboo

lying on the road.

"I have been hired by the commander-in-chief of Division Four," said the

truck driver, adding that he was a civilian.

"In two weeks, I have driven this truck twice. The money soldiers get [from

the wood] is to solve their problems of food, uniforms and shortage at the front

line."

Each time he drives, he earns 4,000 baht ($160).

Farther down Route 10, in Phum Chimneang, 58 kms from Battambang, at a military police

check point just before the turnoff to Phnom Veng, the soldiers are touchy. They

do not allow photographs of themselves or the trucks coming from the forest on the

road from Phnom Veng.

Nor were they too keen on answering questions as they rested at nearby food and drink

stalls.

One threatened to kill, and eat the liver of one Westerner with a camera, "if

you do not leave this place."

"This is a secret." That is the most common answer from soldiers.

"We do not have any authorization. We just cut the trees to have money. The

money is shared among the soldiers in the unit," said the most talkative.

"I would not go and cut even if I got a lot of money. It is too dangerous. There

are a lot of mines. I just go to cut bamboo," he says.

On the way back, about a kilometer from the checkpoint, a group of five men were

busy fixing a chain saw. Three of them were soldiers, two civilians.

"We started to work in this place two weeks ago," said a soldier.

"It is a friendship agreement with the commander-in-chief of military Region

Five. We do not get a proper authorization from the general chief of staff,"

he said.

"We have only got 20,000 baht from the wood we have cut up to now," he

said, adding that the money was to "resolve problems inside my unit".

They tried to hide their faces from the camera. "This is our secret. We do not

want the story to be known all over the country," said one of the men in civilian

clothes.

He said he earned "1,500 a day". He pretended that amount was in riel,

but the others said it was in Thai baht.

They said they started to cut in the area after it had been cleared of mines by a

military demining crew.

Still, they do not wander too far. They said they were about to stop logging that

same afternoon.

Once they repaired their chain saw they began cutting the fallen logs into pieces

that could fit more easily on the trailer.

Another soldier in Snoeung said that in the last two weeks he had taken five trucks

to the Battambang, and that each of the 60 men in his unit received 2,000 baht.

Each one of Battambang's five sawmills received loads of wood from Phnom Veng. The

mills pay between 3,000 to 7,000 baht per cubic meter according to the quality of

the wood.

"The most common and most expensive species is beng. We buy it for 7,000 baht

a meter," said the owner of one mill near Psar Dam Dong, in Battambang.

At the headquarters of Military Region Five, no-one would talk about the soldiers

felling trees. Those who said anything said it was an internal affair.

It is difficult to get a clear idea of how many hectares have been cut. According

to the Battambang forestry department, 200 cubic meters of wood had been sold in

local sawmills since the beginning of March.

"We know that it is forbidden, but the army has the power. We are not able to

control anything," said one forestry official.

He said the department couldn't even correctly tax the mills for the wood they bought,

because officers signed "authorizations" that the wood still belonged to

the military.

Back in Snoueng, it took more than 15 hours to free the dead man trapped under the

truck.

It took only two hours for soldiers to repair the bridge.

Within that time, five trucks full of wood were waiting to find their way to Battambang.

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