Following hot on the heels of a lengthy and unprecedented public forum on conservation – which saw the premier fire off a handful of from-the-hip concessions to the Kingdom’s long-sidelined environmental community – Hun Sen yesterday publicly admonished the governor of Tbong Khmum province to step up his game in the fight against illegal logging.
The call comes eight months after the government launched its highly publicised crackdown on illegal cross-border timber smuggling in Cambodia’s eastern provinces. But after decades of alleged state complicity in the plunder of forests and the crackdown’s failure to produce high-level prosecutions, environmentalists were quick to label the premier’s remarks little more than lip service.
Hun Sen yesterday posted on Facebook that he had met with Tbong Khmum Governor Prach Chan on Tuesday and told him coordinate anti-logging efforts.
“Samdech ordered [the] governor to be responsible and order three forces which include police, military police and soldiers to absolutely carry out this work,” wrote the premier, who said local authorities should also coordinate with their Vietnamese counterparts across the border. “[They] especially must take action against big ringleaders; don’t arrest only ordinary people.”
The orders appear to run contrary to recent proclamations by officials, including Environment Minister Sam Say Al, about the success of the government’s export ban.
Reporting on its results in April, a committee established in January to lead the crackdown against timber smuggling to Vietnam announced it had all but stopped the trade.
At the time, Eng Hy, the committee’s spokesman, declared the team had initiated 51 court cases against individuals and companies and seized 70,000 cubic metres of timber.
Reached yesterday, Hy, a senior military police official, declined to comment on the progress of the prosecutions, referring queries to the respective provincial prosecutors, who could not be reached.
Meanwhile, Tbong Khmum Governor Chan also declined to provide an update on the efforts, only to say he had “taken actions” in line with the prime minister’s directive, before hanging up on a reporter.
Neang Sovath, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said the premier’s words were making little difference on the ground.
“There is no decrease,” Sovath said. “I asked people along the corridors. One says the sound of timber transportation is louder than the ban of samdech prime minister.”
Von Senghuy, NGO Licadho’s provincial investigator, said though some individuals without “connections” had been put out of business by the government’s recent efforts, there remained many timber traders untroubled by the law.
“It seems for those who are well connected, their activities continue,” Senghuy said.
Yesterday’s pronouncement and Monday’s forum with conservation activists seem of a piece with a nationwide “solutions” tour that has seen the premier crisscross the country making populist pledges in what some have suggested is a bid for votes in the upcoming elections. Continuing that trend, the premier also yesterday vowed to award land titles to 93 families in three different districts in Kampong Cham province.
He also announced plans to “take back” a 20-kilometre stretch of road in that province’s Sre Santhor district from the World Bank and hand it over to the provincial authorities to reconstruct.
However, it was yesterday unclear as to what precise road or project Hun Sen was referring. According to the World Bank’s website, it is investing more than $60 million in road maintenance in Cambodia, though the project is being implemented via the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.
The website says there is no maintenance work in Sre Santhor district though there are upgrades slated for nearby Tonle Bet district. The World Bank did not respond by press time.