As a national crackdown on illegal logging rumbles on, Try Pheap, Cambodia’s most prominent timber tycoon, issued a public denial of reports that he was linked to an economic land concession (ELC) where authorities found hundreds of cubic metres of potentially illegal timber.
The denial comes amidst the crackdown’s first reported arrests and reports that high-value timber is being buried in pits to circumvent inspection.
On Friday, Try Pheap Group issued a press release quashing local media reports that it was connected to hundreds of cubic metres of timber that were inspected that day at Unigreen Resource Co Ltd, a Chinese-owned ELC in Mondulkiri’s Koh Nhek district.
“Try Pheap has the honour to inform the public that the company completely denies this, that it is not involved with Unigreen Resource, which was just inspected by the commission,” the statement said.
Unigreen Resource was granted 8,000 hectares of land in 2008 for 70 years to maintain rubber plantations. The company, which is owned by Chinese national Chua Kwaseng, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Mondulkiri province was also the location of the first reported arrests of the crackdown on Thursday, officials confirmed.
Provincial military police chief Sak Saraign said five alleged male timber smugglers – Sambath Veaha, 19; Cheng Ratha, 19; Cheng Rithy, 22; Chhorn Chanrithy, 23; and Eoum Sivorn, 25 – were arrested in Keo Seima district.
Saraign said the five confessed after authorities seized three vehicles with dozens of luxury timber logs in them.
The escalating crackdown has caused timber stockpiles to mysteriously disappear in an ongoing effort to hide their provenance.
Authorities in Tbong Khmum province’s O’Reang-ou district said yesterday that six heavy trucks of luxury timber belonging to an unknown tycoon dumped hundreds of tonnes of luxury timber in pits in Preah Theat commune last week.
“Each truck contained at least 50 tonnes of thnong wood, which was dumped in the pits. They needed to dump it because authorities are looking for it,” said commune chief Hang Yeng, who added that some villagers took the timber home or sold it to other timber brokers in the area.
Last week, timber caches went up in flames in Mondulkiri province in what was believed to be a similar bid to destroy evidence.
General Sao Sokha, the head of the anti-logging commission – who has himself been accused of involvement in the illegal timber trade – was in Tbong Khmum province on Friday to inspect a timber warehouse.
According to the national military police’s website, Sokha ordered all local authorities to inspect timber in their provinces and make “clear reports”.
Military police spokesman Eng Hy confirmed that timber had been buried in Tbong Khmum in two locations at a local warehouse, but declined to elaborate, saying officers were still working on the case.
“Our officers are investigating these cases and who owns the timber. It is behind the warehouse, but we do not know to whom it belongs,” he said.
Although the logging crackdown has received plenty of publicity since it began in early January, critics have suggested that it could be an attempt to centralise the racket rather than wipe it out.
None of the tycoons long accused of masterminding the timber trade, such as Try Pheap, have been arrested.
Kim Reaksmey, Ratanakkiri provincial military police chief, said yesterday that timber belonging to Pheap and An Mardy, another prominent tycoon, had been determined legal because it was “all produced for local consumption and not for export”.