Authorities yesterday raided several logging warehouses in the country’s east, just days after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered a crackdown on illegal timber smuggling into Vietnam.
In a joint operation with multiple agencies, including district police, military police and forestry officials, authorities confirmed yesterday that two logging warehouses in Tbong Khmum province belonging to wealthy businessman Lim Bunna had been seized.
Officials said they were still assessing the size of the haul and could not yet release any details, but photos show hundreds of logs stacked in the warehouses. Authorities had yet to determine if the wood had been illegally logged.
“Since the morning, so far, there is still no proper estimate, and we are checking the relevant documents,” said Mao Pov, Tbong Khmum’s provincial police chief.
On Friday, the prime minister tasked National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha with leading a committee to shut down illegal timber smuggling across the border into Vietnam. The joint-forces body was lent two military helicopters to help their investigation.
At the time, a government spokesman said the tycoons Soeng Sam Ol and Lim Bunna were the primary targets of the sting. There was no word yesterday on the status of the investigation into Sam Ol, and officials would not say yesterday if they had Bunna in custody or if he would be arrested.
Hundreds of soldiers and police were also investigating land concessions yesterday in Kratie province, near the border of Mondulkiri.
“We have sent our forces to comply with orders of the committee and we have started do it step by step,” said military police spokesman Eng Hy.
San Bunthan, Kratie provincial military police chief, confirmed late yesterday that security forces had seized thousands of logs on a concession held by a Chinese company, but said that he could not reveal its name.
“We are keeping our forces stationed [at the land concession] to control the wood and in order to allow the Forestry Administration to check whether it was illegal or not,” he said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said authorities had been investigating the sites for some time, but until now had not obtained any solid evidence of illegal activity.
He could not confirm the status of the two tycoons being targeted, but said the “special operation” was ongoing.
“[The prime minister] asked [the committee] to seal all border lines where they are smuggling logs to Vietnam,” he said.
But not everyone was convinced that the latest crackdown was motivated by efforts to curb deforestation.
“Sadly, it has all the hallmarks of a dispute,” said Marcus Hardtke, of the German conservation group ARA.
Citing similar cases of the government making public announcements followed by busts in the past, Hardtke said these efforts had done little to curb Cambodia’s rampant illegal logging trade.
“I don’t see any larger-scale shift in policy away from deforestation or illegal logging.”
Additional reporting by Daniel de Carteret