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Officials investigate Battambang bridge burnings

A GROUP of illegal loggers set fire to two bridges in Battambang’s Samlot district Monday night after one of their own – a man known simply as “the wood emperor” – was arrested while travelling with a haul of recently felled trees, military officials said.

Hem Sovath, deputy chief of the Thailand-Cambodia Relations Office, said his staff and officials from the provincial Environment Department had arrested Tith Savoeun, 41, a soldier stationed in Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Military Region 5, at 7pm on Monday as he was driving with 4 cubic metres of illegal wood.

“The car Tith Savoeun was driving belonged to him, and he is well-known for illegal logging anarchy,” said Hem Sovath, adding that the suspect
had been known locally as “the wood emperor” for “around the past five years”.

Three hours after the arrest, he said, a group of illegal loggers burned down one 4-metre-by-6-metre bridge and one 4-metre-by-9-metre bridge in Tatok commune, Samlot district, a move he described as an attempt to throw the authorities off their trail.

“They burned down the bridges on Monday night in a bid to prevent our investigation,” he said.

Im Dara, provincial military police deputy chief, also said he suspected the two incidents were related, though he cautioned that this had not yet been proved.

“We don’t know the real reason behind the bridge fires for sure, but our first estimation is that the perpetrators are part of the same illegal logging group,” he said.

He added that the suspects “might have a stockpile of illegal wood” along the Thai-Cambodian border, an area he said that was rarely visited by Environment Department officials.

Tackling impunity
Hem Sovath said Tith Savoeun is being held at the provincial Environment Department office, where he faces a fine of US$2,000.

He also said he plans to file a criminal complaint against the suspect.

“No one has dared to arrest him before because he has powerful supporters,” Hem Sovath said. “I took a risk to arrest this suspect, and I don’t fear a demotion. I have no choice because I do not want it to be said that officials are involved in illegal logging.”

Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for the rights group Licadho, said most illegal logging operations in the Kingdom were led “by rich and powerful officials”.

“This makes it hard for the government to find the mastermind,” he said.

“The arrest of the powerful soldier in Battambang is a sign for government officials and illegal businessmen to use caution,” he added.



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