Since he began making the perilous journey to Thailand to log rosewood 10 years ago, Sao Sophon* has had plenty of time to calculate the cost of dying.
“When we cross the border to Thailand, our lives are equal to $80 or $90, because that is the amount we can earn for each trip. If the Thai soldiers shoot us, that is what our lives are worth,” Sophon said.
Sitting on the back of the large two-wheeled cart that he pulls from Oddar Meanchey province into Thailand, Sophon, the head of an illegal logging cartel, told the Post that the hunt for lucrative rosewood leads loggers on a gruelling four-hour trek over the sprawling Dangkrek Mountains and into neighbouring Thailand.
While the area offers an abundance of rosewood, it is also the base of armed, black-uniformed Thai soldiers, he said.
“When we cut trees at night, we divide into three groups, one on the left side and [one on] the right side watching the Thai soldiers, and a group in the middle cutting trees. Sometimes, we cannot sleep for two days and have no food,” he said.
“For safety, we have to use walkie-talkies, and the leader walks in front of their group by about 10 metres. When they see Thai soldiers, the leader calls [to the rest of] their group to throw everything away and run to safety.”
But despite their best efforts to stay safe, fatalities are commonplace.
According to the Ministry of Interior, 69 Cambodians were shot dead while illegally crossing the Thai border last year. Suggesting this year is set to be just as bloody, Cambodian officials said in March that Thai soldiers had shot dead 12 Cambodian loggers in a single day.
“A lot of people here, when they know their relative or husband has been shot to death by Thai soldiers, hold a funeral ceremony without the body, because Thai soldiers demand 10,000 baht [$305] if they want the body back,” Sophon said.
Rights groups have labelled the shootings “arbitrary killings” – dismissing claims of self-defence – and demanded thorough investigations.
Sophon, who claims not to carry a firearm when logging, said he faces a greater risk than most.
“The Thai [soldiers], they are hunting for the leader.”
Sophon estimates that about 1,000 illegal loggers in Cambodia cross into Thailand for the luxury wood and, along with other loggers in Oddar Meanchey, told the Post that Cambodian soldiers are at the centre of the region’s illicit trade, which stretches from jungle areas of Myanmar to buyers in China.
“We have problems with Thai soldiers already, and when we arrive back at the border, we get problems from our Cambodian soldiers. They threaten to confiscate our wood if we do not sell it to them, and when we sell it to them, we get a lower price than we would through a broker,” Sophon said.
“We risk our lives to get that wood, but the Cambodian soldiers do not understand that.… I am angry about this, but we have no power to say anything, because we are criminals.”
Sem Kosal, who also has been illegally logging for the past decade, said that Cambodian soldiers allow loggers to pass into Thailand but threaten to confiscate their wood when they return if they refuse to pay a bribe.
“Cambodian soldiers arrest us and confiscate our wood, but if we meet a Thai soldier, we will die,” he said.
Touch Ra, deputy of Chaom-Sa Ngaom international border checkpoint, agreed that some Cambodian soldiers fuel the illegal trade.
“I believe there are some soldiers who buy rosewood from those people at a cheaper price to sell to other businessmen for a higher price, but for me, I have never been involved with that,” he said.
According to Ra, in this year alone, two people have been shot dead and 20 arrested while attempting to cross the Chaom-Sa Ngaom border.
Illegal logger Kosal said daytime is the most dangerous time.
“When we sleep in Thailand, we are so scared … we just sleep underground. Thai soldiers open fire in daytime; at nighttime, they do not fire much,” he said.
The gruelling conditions and risk of death lead many to turn to drugs, loggers told the Post.
Soun Samneang said that brokers provide illegal loggers with yama, a form of methamphetamine and caffeine, to cope with the conditions on their first trip. After that, many become dependent on the substances.
“I think 70 per cent of young loggers are using drugs, and the broker is the person who teaches them to use drugs. Now loggers buy drugs by themselves,” Samneang said.
“When I go with my own group, I have never used drugs, but when I go by broker, they give us drugs. I don’t want to use it, but sometimes I cannot sleep for two days and have no food, so I have to do it.”
While many loggers use brokers to arrange the trip, others make the journey alone.
Twenty-nine-year-old Sem Thoeun was shot in the leg while logging in Thailand earlier this month. With no money for surgery, the bullet remains embedded beneath his skin.
While he had logged in Thailand before, Thoeun claims that on the day of the shooting, he thought he was still in Cambodian territory when confronted by eight Thai soldiers.
“I walked past Cambodian territory without knowing, and my friend told me that we were in Thailand, so I tried to walk quickly back to Cambodia. But I met Thai soldiers, who fired on me. They rushed to attack me, but I fought back and tried to run back to the Cambodian border.
“I didn’t know I was injured until I touched my leg and saw the blood, then I fell unconscious. When I woke up, I was in a hospital.”
Earning just $50 from his small cassava plantation last year, logging has provided vital income for his family.
Thoeun said that he can fell about 30 to 70 kilograms of timber on a good day, and makes 30,000 to 50,000 riel, about $7.50 to $12.50, selling it to a furniture shop.
“I know it is dangerous, but I need food to support my wife and my two sons,” he said.
Thoeun’s neighbour, 52-year-old Et Sok, agreed.
“If we stay at home, we will die of starvation. If we cross the border and we’re lucky, we will not die and we will have food to eat,” he said.
Sok, who has been illegally logging since 1987, said he has been shot at by Thai soldiers a number of times but has always managed to escape.
“When we see Thai soldiers, we throw everything away and just run for safety,” he said.
While the threat of being shot is omnipresent for loggers, fear of arrest on the wrong side of the border is just as real.
Sixty-three-year-old Song Siha spends hours every day thinking about her son, who has been languishing in a Thai prison for the past four months after being caught logging illegally.
According to Siha, her son was carrying 40 kilograms of luxury wood on his back when he was caught and sentenced to 17 months.
Speaking from her home in Oddar Meanchey, Siha begged for her son’s safe return.
“I want him free. I would like to ask the Cambodian government please to intervene to release him,” she said.
Siha said she had allowed her son to put his life at risk because the family could not afford to eat. Now, she says she would rather go hungry.
“When he is released from prison, I will not allow him to go again. I will let him work in the farm, even though that does not bring in enough money to live off of,” she said.
But despite the risks, many say they have no choice other than to continue to gamble with their lives.
“When we cross the border, we never think that we will survive, but we have to cross it. If we don’t die, we are lucky,” said Samneang.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the loggers