Police in Preah Vihear yesterday afternoon arrested four more civilians in connection with a forest ambush that killed two and wounded one late last week, as tensions seemingly mount between police and RCAF soldiers stationed in the area.
In addition to the arrests, a search is ongoing for another military suspect from local RCAF Brigade 9 who fled his barracks on Tuesday night. An anonymous source close to the investigation said that the escapee had stolen some guns and lit out amid the rash of arrests, and police are considering the possibility that he was one of the gunmen in the deadly attack.
Colonel Khat Hun, deputy chief of the Preah Vihear provincial police, confirmed the unnamed suspect’s escape from his military post yesterday, and that he is being sought for questioning.
Meanwhile, six civilian suspects arrested earlier were yesterday charged with illegal logging and exporting forest products.
Though none of the six have been formally accused of having ties to the murders, the court has not ruled out levelling more charges in the future, according to Colonel Hun.
Chan Soeung, a military officer from Brigade 9, Division 3, apprehended on Tuesday, is still being questioned about his possible role in the attack. According to Hun, Soeung is known for working with illegal loggers and threatening patrol teams with violence.
“He was a gang soldier and has also been involved with illegal logging activities in the province. He had his own illegal logging business in this area [and] has received bribes from other illegal loggers in exchange for protection,” said Hun.
Hun added that Soeung made a threatening call to one of the ambush victims, forestry officer Seang Darong, just two days before Darong was killed.
But RCAF Division 3 commander Lieutenant General Srey Doek, while confirming that Soeung was under arrest, yesterday defended the military’s record in the area, and expressed annoyance that local police officials were interrogating one of his own.
“I think that if there was real evidence [against Soeung], the police cannot arrest or bring the soldier for questioning like this,” he said in a phone interview. “Our soldiers here have never been involved with the crime of illegal logging.”
“To defend the soldier’s reputation from being associated with forest crimes, I have told the commander of Brigade 9 to conduct an investigation about this case,” he added.
Brigade Commander General Duong Chan could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The anonymous source yesterday said animosity between soldiers and police in the area had been growing, with police increasingly willing to prosecute soldiers, something they were reluctant to do in the past.
Ross Sinclair, the country director for the Wildlife Conservation Society, said that the area is a patch of evergreen forest that is more valuable than the surrounding deciduous forests. It’s also a source of the critically endangered koki trees that are increasing in value as their numbers dwindle.