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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Log trade cut but how long?

Log trade cut but how long?

DOUBTS over the Royal government's ability to enforce its latest log export ban increased

last week, after an independent inspections firm cancelled its plans to monitor the

timber trade.

A representative of Cargo Superintendent Ltd, a subsidiary of the Swiss-based Societe

Generale de Surveillance (SGS), indicated that security concerns had prompted the

firm to withdraw its bid.

"The company was not confident it could do the job," said Richard Hines,

the national chief executive of SGS in Cambodia.

Hines maintained that the government had asked SGS to consider an "expanded

role" in monitoring Cambodia's logging activities to include the policing of

illegal cutting as well as export operations.

"Our company provides information, we are not involved in law enforcement,"

said Hines, adding that monitoring log exports under the newly imposed ban could

require just that.

The unexpected announcement was a cause of embarrassment for the government, which

disclosed the SGS pull-out during a meeting of the Donors Consultative Group, on

Thursday last week.

Calling the SGS decision "an unfortunate set-back for forestry policy,"

government officials were quick to inform international donors that it "remains

strongly committed" to setting up an independent monitoring system "as

soon as possible."

In recent months, international donors have grown increasingly impatient with the

government's poor performance in reforming the forestry sector - with the International

Monetary Fund (IMF) suspending a $20 million loan to Cambodia in October.

But the British-based lobby group Global Witness (GW), has reported that the December

31 export ban is working.

"I think the government realizes that it has to respond to donor concerns if

it's going to get their funds," said GW's Charmian Gooch.

"All the information we have suggests the border was closed by Cambodians on

Dec 31... and the Thais followed suit later," said Gooch.

According to GW however, the Royal government's will to enforce the ban is likely

to wane following a scheduled visit of an IMF delegation - this Feb - to discuss

the release of future loans.

"After that, I would be very surprised if logs didn't start going across the

border," said Gooch.

GW said recent discussions with a senior Thai-Cambodian Border Commission official

in Aranyaprathet confirmed their suspicions.

"Cambodia has to look good now, we need to look good because the Americans are

going around the border," the Thai border official told GW, referring to the

visit of a US fact-finding mission looking into Thai-KR logging connections.

"But after that, we-the Thai government- will help logging companies get the

timber out," the Thai border official said.

According to the US FY97 Foreign Operations Act, which includes a Feb 1 "report

back" clause, US military aid to Thailand will be cut if a Thai-Khmer Rouge

business link is proven.

Government officials and independent observers agree that without full cooperation

from the Thai authorities, the latest ban does not stand a chance.

In a letter addressed to Thai Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchai-yudh in Dec last year,

Cambodia's co-Prime Ministers requested his assistance in enforcing the ban and inspecting

rest areas.

"You should facilitate our competent officials in measuring and control of the

logs and sawn wood, which were exported in the Cambodia-Thai border areas,"

the letter requests.

According to GW, more than 120,000 cubic meters of mostly fresh cut timber-worth

between $42 million and $96 million dollars-was illegally exported to Thailand in

the December lead up to the ban.

"We have suggested that the Royal Cambodian Government try to get hold of Thai

customs documents to track down some of that revenue," said GW's Gooch.

While none of the companies importing that timber had officially acknowledged contracts

with the Cambodian Government, they told GW that payments had been deposited in a

Cambodian bank.

"Thai companies told us that they had sent payment to an account at the National

Bank of Cambodia, but the government maintains that it has not received any money,"

said Patrick Alley of GW, who said he had viewed documents which showed the transfer

had occurred.

GW said when Cambodian officials asked the Thai companies to provide details on the

transfer, the companies declined.

Thai logging companies also told GW they were optimistic about the future resumption

of log trade since most of the former KR checkpoints along the border were now being

manned by RCAF soldiers.

"Logging companies are confident that they can negotiate a deal with RCAF...

They can't believe that the border will stay closed," Gooch said.

In the meantime, the Thai government's will to enforce the ban remains clouded by

recent revelations in the Bangkok Post that Thailand had opened 21 border checkpoints

for log imports late last year.

On January 21, the Bangkok Post reported that it was likely Thai Prime Minister Chavalit

Yongchaiyudh would be cleared, in an "official document", of involvement

in a bribery scandal connected to the opening of the checkpoints.

According to the Bangkok Post the "official document" indicates that Cambodia's

Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Minister Tao Seng Hour initiated the request

for the check points to be opened.

"I have had talks with His Excellency Chavalit about the Thai companies that

had asked to buy logs from our government but I did not ask Chavalit to open the

door," Tao Seng Hour said.

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