MILITARY officials on Monday responded to allegations that Royal Cambodian Armed Forces soldiers were running an illegal logging operation out of Preah Vihear province by dismissing them altogether or downplaying the operation's significance.
Officials from the rights group Adhoc and the Forestry Administration said Monday that they had witnessed military vehicles leaving bases along the border between Preah Vihear and Oddar Meanchey provinces with "luxury wood" in their possession.
They said they had reported the alleged infractions to their superiors but that no action had been taken to address them.
Sao Socheat, deputy commander of RCAF Military Region 4, acknowledged Monday that some soldiers had been supplementing their incomes by selling illegally felled wood, though he described the practice as "not a big deal".
"Soldiers do not have a big business selling wood," he said. "But some soldiers have bought [wood] for their own use or to help their families.
They have been stationed along the border for a long time, and they need to take some [wood] for their families' needs in the provinces."
He added: "It is not a big deal. It is a small issue. The border dispute is the main issue."
Hor Neat, Adhoc's coordinator for Preah Vihear province, said Monday that his organisation had repeatedly encountered evidence suggesting that military trucks were transporting illegally logged wood back home.
"The military trucks carry luxury wood back to town after they drop supplies, weapons and ammunition at military bases. It is normal right now in this area," Hor Neat said.
"It is hard to blame them because they are at the border defending their territory and need some money for their own expenses," he said.
Speaking to the Post Monday, a Forestry Administration official who monitors the transportation of wood in Preah Vihear province said he had
counted 62 trucks belonging to the military that were "loaded" with timber on Sunday alone.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Monday that "62 military trucks and pickup trucks with soldiers were carrying luxury wood from their bases at the border".
He added: "I could not do anything because soldiers were carrying them. I just counted the number of trucks."
He said he believed the soldiers were travelling to Siem Reap province en route to other provinces.
"I have reported to senior officials about them, but I have received no order to crack down on them. It is difficult to crack down on them because they are military trucks and soldiers are sitting in them," he said.
'Middlemen', or soldiers?
But Prak Phy, chief of Sa Em village in Choam Ksan district, said Monday that the wood was mainly trafficked by middlemen who were "always" caught by officials.
"I do not know if soldiers are involved in wood trafficking, but I know middlemen are transporting wood from Preah Vihear to Siem Reap province by cars and pickup trucks, and they have always had wood confiscated by Forestry Administration officials," he said.
Long Sovann, the deputy governor of Preah Vihear province, also said he had not heard reports of illegal logging by soldiers.