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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Pressure mounts to halt Thai-KR log trade

Pressure mounts to halt Thai-KR log trade

T HAILAND is facing increased pressure to stem illegal timber exports from Cambodia

amid allegations of rampant logging in former Khmer Rouge zones and reinvigorated

trading with remaining Khmer Rouge hardliners.

"True to form, Thai politicians and the military are safeguarding their own

income by riding roughshod over their neighbor's interests," said Patrick Alley,

a director of the British based lobby group Global Witness.

He said logging had increased dramatically in areas recently "integrated"

with Phnom Penh, and Thai companies had moved in just weeks after the KR's August

split.

Alley said 18 Thai companies planned to extract more than 850,000 cubic meters of

Cambodian timber from newly "liberated" zones - much of it newly cut, despite

a ban on the export of freshly felled trees supposedly put in force in April 1995.

Thai trading with the Khmer Rouge is widely believed to have been significantly reduced

by a Thai decision to close the Cambodian border in May 1995. But evidence suggests

the trade has resumed with a vengeance following the August Khmer Rouge split.

Speaking Dec 23 in Samlot - a former Khmer Rouge stronghold close to Cambodia's western

border with Thailand - Funcinpec's deputy chief of military staff, Nhek Bun Chhay,

said eight Thai companies had already extracted close to a quarter million cubic

meters of timber from the area since the KR split.

"The eight companies told me they had taken 245,000 cubic meters out of the

country," he said, adding the timber was valued at around $26 million.

"The people told me 50 million Thai Baht (about $2 million) went to Phnom Penh

by helicopter yesterday... I do not know where the rest of the money is."

Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor - whose ministry is responsible for collecting

timber revenues - said only two companies had entered into formal agreements with

the Cambodian government.

He added that Thailand had officially informed him of the opening of just one border

checkpoint, despite the reported opening of at least six including one opposite territory

controlled by Khmer Rouge hard-liners.

Speaking at the release of a Global Witness (GW) report based on a September investigation

in Thailand, Alley said Thai companies were rushing to take advantage of the inability

of the Royal Cambodian Government (RCG) to control the border.

Alley said Thailand had unilaterally opened border checkpoints including one at Chongsa-ngam,

just north of the hard-line KR stronghold of Anlong Veng.

He said the Hua Weing Sawmill and SRR companies - both of which have no export approval

from Phnom Penh - expect to receive logs from the KR-controlled region that are to

be cut and transported to Thailand by the Khukan Aroonsawat Company.

"This is a return to Thai cooperation with the KR, throwing this besieged group

a lifeline. This isn't just facilitation by the Thai military [which controls movement

across and near the border], it has the sanction of [Thai officials] at the highest

levels," Alley said.

The Thai embassy in Phnom Penh did not return the Post's calls before press time,

but Tao Seng Huor said the ambassador had told him he was unaware of the issues raised

by GW.

But he said he had received commitments of cooperation from Thai PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

"I have met him twice and he said he would fix any problems. He said he would

cooperate, so I wonder why he has opened the border," he said.

"We will close the border to all timber exports on December 31, but we will

need Thailand's cooperation. I have also asked the United States, the International

Monetary Fund and the World Bank to remind Thailand of its responsibilities as a

good neighbor," he said.

Cambodia's ambassador to Thailand, Roland Eng, has also requested the Thai government

to tell Phnom Penh exactly how many Thai companies are operating on the border and

how many cubic meters they have already removed.

Tao Seng Hour said he plans to ask the Thai government soon to quarantine existing

stockpiles to allow Cambodia to assess royalties payable.

According to the GW report, Khukan Aroonsawat said its sawmill was built on land

owned by the notorious KR general, Ta Mok. The company also claimed that a gas station

and new hotel at Lalom junction in Thailand were part of a $12 million KR investment

- including a Bangkok hotel - managed by Pol Pot's daughter.

"In allowing the opening of Chongsa-ngam to export logs from a hard-line KR

zone, the Thai government and military are risking the full implications of the United

States' FY97 Foreign Operations Act," Alley said.

The Act carries the threat of a withdrawal of military aid to countries that "...[do

not act] vigorously to prevent [the military] from facilitating the export of timber

from Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge."

However, GW is pessimistic about Thailand's level of commitment to the issue; co-director

Simon Taylor said investigations had uncovered evidence implicating senior Thai politicians

in the illegal export of timber.

He said Thai loggers had complained that former PM Banharn asked them for large sums

of money to open border checkpoints.

"This is... not exactly a great example of international cooperation, especially

among potential Asean partners," he said.

Taylor also said GW was "interested" in "the role of General Chavalit

and his wife." He said Chavalit attended a meeting in the Cambodian Embassy

on January 18 with Tao Seng Huor and the Cambodian ambassador "the same day

that representatives of thirteen Thai logging companies met [there]".

And he said Chavalit's wife "met an interpreter for BLP Import/Export at Pochentong

on Sept 8." According to GW, BLP has a 71,000 cubic meter timber deal with the

Cambodian government of which half is newly felled.

Chavalit's involvement at the Cambodian embassy meeting in January was deemed "appropriate"

by Tao Seng Huor. "He was the deputy prime minister and represented the Thai

government," the minister said.

The GW report detailing the findings of their recent border investigation claims

Thai companies moved into the area around Pailin just weeks after the Khmer Rouge

split.

Although Ieng Sary announced a ban on fresh cutting of timber in areas under his

control, "investigations show that this statement is meaningless or that Ieng

Sary wields little power around Pailin, where, for example, Chantaburi Rompho-roow's

manager and 100 workers were cutting timber in September," the report read.

Alley said GW will visit Washington in the new year to lobby the US government to

pressure Thailand to once again close its border with Cambodia.

He said the Americans and other donors were becoming increasingly concerned with

the RCG's inability to collect revenue from logging concessions. A US Embassy spokesman

had no comment.

Revenue from forestry is projected to total about $10 million in 1997, down from

around $35 million in 1994 and $21 million in 1995.

A senior official at the Ministry of Finance said the RCG could earn $100 million

- about one quarter of the national budget - if it charged "reasonable"

royalties and directed the money to the national treasury.

During the July 1996 Tokyo meeting of donor countries, and in direct response to

donor concerns, the Cambodian government made a series of commitments relating to

the economic and ecological importance of Cambodia's forests.

Related to those commitments - and a recommendation from the International Monetary

Fund after it canceled $20 million in subsidized loans because of the RCG's inability

to raise revenue from logging - was the appointment of an independent monitoring

body.

The European firm SGS Forestry is to set up a monitoring operation to examine the

extent of illegal logging and recommend strategies to enable the Cambodian government

to increase logging revenue.

"The major problem here is that the independent monitors appointed by the RCG

are not due to commence work until Jan 13, so right now there is a free-for-all going

on... the RCG should... demand that Thailand immediately closes its border checkpoints

to support Cambodian policy," Taylor said.

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