FORESTRY officials say they have seized roughly 3,000 cubic metres of valuable timber in nationwide raids in the past two months, as municipal authorities raided warehouses stocking contraband timber in Russey Keo district over the weekend.
Forestry Administration Director Ty Sokun said Monday that the current crackdown, which began with a directive from Prime Minister Hun Sen in January, has led to around 100 raids and seizures totalling 3,000 cubic metres of hardwood.
“We will file all these cases to the courts. We have confiscated the valuable timber, and the owners will be fined and punished,” he said.
He also said that forestry officials are conducting investigations to determine the owners of the confiscated wood, many of whom are believed to be prominent businessmen.
“Since we started our operations, many timber owners have run away or thrown their timber away fearing arrest,” he said, adding that nationwide operations would be intensified in the coming weeks.
During a Council of Ministers meeting Friday, Hun Sen called on officials to maintain a hard line against suspected timber smugglers and to punish them without exception. “The crackdown on logging perpetrators is a crackdown on criminals who are considered national traitors,” he said, according to a statement released after the meeting.
The crackdown has so far implicated some prominent figures. Late last week, authorities in Siem Reap province raided warehouses belonging to tycoon Sok Kong, senator and businessman Lao Meng Khin and Ang Try, the owner of the Tiger Beer licence for Cambodia.
Authorities also raided four warehouses in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district over the weekend, district deputy police chief Chan Sahuth said Sunday.
“All woods were confiscated and transferred to forestry officials,” he said. “We are continuing to seek other locations, but I think it is almost finished.”
Nhim Seila, deputy military police commander for Siem Reap, said that since the four stockpiles were raided last week, seven people – including two low-ranking military police officers – have been arrested.
He said he was “waiting to cooperate” with court and Forestry Administration officials, and that he would provide armed security for them in the event of any further raids.
Bunra Seng, country director of Conservation International, said he was “very happy” with news of the crackdown, and urged the government to maintain its campaign.
“The people just look at the pond, but they don’t know how many fishes there are. But when there’s a crackdown like this, we can see how much illegal activity there is in Cambodia, how many people are involved and who they are,” he said, though he added that he wanted “more details” on the scope and aim of the campaign.
Some observers, however, said the current campaign – like others in the past – will do little to prevent illegal logging in the long term.
“These crackdowns happen sporadically.... If you look at history, [the logging] will continue after this calms down,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights. He said that Hun Sen’s current zeal for eradicating illegal logging is more likely linked to a quarrel between senior officials over scarce timber resources.
“There might be different groups fighting for the same piece of cake,” he said. “My bet is that it’s [designed] to put an end to quarrelling within the ruling elite.”
Government critics also point to the fact that prominent figures, such as those linked to the Siem Reap stockpiles, have not yet been prosecuted for possessing illegal timber.
“We welcome the operation, but I wonder why authorities only confiscated the timber and did not arrest the perpetrators and punish them,” Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said Sunday.
Ou Virak said that without clear punishments, there was no financial incentive to get out of the illegal wood trade. “It clearly makes sense for people to take the risk: The rewards are very great, but the punishments are minimal. And you always have the option of paying your way out,” he said.
However, Ty Sokun said that in the cases of Sok Kong, Lao Meng Khin and Ang Try there was insufficient evidence to file complaints to the courts.
He said Sok Kong’s warehouse had the necessary licences to stock rare hardwoods, while the timber at Lao Meng Khin’s facility was likely owned by his relatives, who had maintained the stocks for several years for use in a hotel development.
Officials were still investigating the case of Ang Try, and are waiting to see if he has the necessary approval from the authorities, Ty Sokun said.
“The cases in Siem Reap have not yet been filed to the court,” he said.
According to the 2002 Forestry Law, he said, people convicted of illegal logging or receiving benefits from the sale of valuable timber face fines of between 10 and 100 million riels (about US$24,000) and face between one and five years’ jail.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY RANN REUY