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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Timber trade thriving out of Koh Kong

Timber trade thriving out of Koh Kong

S oldiers admit to taking bribes because of the example being set by their superiors;

all attempts to bring illegal logging under control are hijacked by rampant corruption

at all levels. Mang Channo reports from a lawless province.

KOH KONG - The persistent buzz of a military-owned and run timber mill can be heard

just a few kilometers from Koh Kong town. A gray Cambodian navy gunship, part of

a 20-strong fleet, patrols for illegal timber traders in the Koh Kong inlet that

opens into the Gulf of Siam.

Deputy Governor Pall San said that the Post could visit the mill, but only under

police escort. That costs money.

This is the reality of Koh Kong: timber is being cut and shipped out, according to

Pall San, "on the same scale as before the (April 1995 export) ban." And

officialdom and the military are getting the lion's share of the profits.

"Everybody is the same," Pall San said, lumping together officials from

every ministry, either locally or from Phnom Penh.

Pall San said that if any official came from Phnom Penh professing honesty, that

person - without exception - would become corrupted.

According to British-based environmentalists Global Witness, whose directors recently

finished their third investigation into Cambodian logging, the Government's timber

cutting and export ban has resulted in a much-reduced cross-border trade.

The gross exceptions are in Koh Kong and around Anglong Veng.

Timber illegally shipped out of Koh Kong - including logs felled in Riem national

park - goes to the Thai fishing port of Kalapandha. Twenty-five Thai fishing boats,

and an unknown number of Cambodian boats, ply the trade, according to a Global Witness

report.

Thai authorities make no attempt to stop the weekly trade of more than 6,000 cubic

meters of timber, in direct contravention to the Cambodian Government's ban, the

report says.

A 5,000 baht ($200) bribe is payable to the Cambodian authorities, it says.

Reports from Koh Kong suggest the trade with Thailand is actually increasing.

Koh Kong's districts such as Botom Sakor, Dong Tong, Thmorbang and Sre Ambel are

the most active.

The Cambodian gunships - which have been given free rein by the Government to open

fire on illegal timber traders - cannot help but see the vast trade going past them.

The ships patrol just a few kilometers off-shore, and can be easily seen from land.

Pall San said that at least 500 loggers with chain saws are cutting trees and nearly

a hundred trucks and bulldozers are helping to rebuild roads for removing timber

from deep forests. They are charged $160 "tax" by the Khmer Rouge, and

$120 by the Cambodian military, he said.

Pall San estimated that at least 800 cubic meters are being cut every day, roughly

concurring with Global Witness' estimation of the Kalapandha imports.

He said that he had not had any success in stopping illegal logging because of total

corruption and lawlessness. Illegal loggers either deal directly with the military,

police and Khmer Rouge, or actually belong to those groups, he said.

The navy, rather than policing the seas, actually protect the trade for money, he

said. Illegal loggers and exporters are using larger boats now instead of small ones,

because $150 "taxes" payable at checkpoints eat into their profits too

much, he said.

An officer at Ta Teng, one of Dong Tong's communes, who would not be named, said

forests had been cleared-felled in recent months.

He said one of the islands "is already bald like a monk's head."

"They are the same," he said of police, local authorities and the military.

"Anyone who has power is a winner," he said.

Pall San admitted that Dong Tong district officers are dealing with logging companies

without talking to him.

Un An, a military officer at Sre Ambel waterfront checkpoint, said that two licenses

were issued after the ban on logging exports. One of 20,000 cubic meters was issued

in July by National Police chief Hok Lundy and the co-Minister of Defense Tea Chamrath.

Another of 20,000 cubic meters was issued by the provincial governor, Prom San Khesor,

and the chief of Koh Kong military, Pich Chen Ho.

Un An said that the timber under these licenses had never been checked by any authority,

and the amount of timber could be closer to double the approved 20,000 cubic meters.

Minister of Agriculture Tao Seng Hour could not comment on the allegations. Hok Lundy

would not talk directly to the Post, but his advisor Yun Vanna said that Lundy had

never given permission to any company to export timber after the logging ban.

Pich Chen Ho said that he only approved a 50 cubic meter concession for the police

to build their base. He did not know if there was illegal timber being exported from

Koh Kong.

"I am not responsible to follow up," he said. "Here, we have an inter-ministerial

committee which has been set up to stop illegal timbers. I am not interfering with

their work," Chen Ho said.

Pall San however complained that the inter-ministerial committee - set up by Phnom

Penh - was demonstrably unsuccessful and corrupt.

"They have gunships and helicopters but they haven't confiscated a single log.

The timber [trade] goes on and on everyday," he said.

"Here, if anyone comes, they will lose their honesty because of money.

"Sometimes I find it very difficult myself because the majority agree to make

money rather than protect [forests]," San said.

Un An, meanwhile, said that Chen Ho asked his team to release a boat which had been

confiscated at the Sre Ambil checkpoint.

Un An also said that he must accept a "tip" of between 100 to 500 baht

because he could not survive on his $20 a month salary - and besides "we have

to do so because our bosses are an example. They are corrupt. We are living in a

dangerous places, perhaps the target for Khmer Rouge to attack. But they [the chiefs],

they don't care about us."

"They're staying in the city. They care only for their villas and luxury cars.

So who am I to care ?" he asked.

"I have my children and my wife. A little tip is not enough for us to survive,"

he said.

Tao Seng Hour, the Minister of Agriculture, who recently visited Koh Kong, said that

the government must stop the illegal logging.

"I understand we haven't succeeded in cracking down on illegal timber exports.

You may know this problem because of certain armed groups who used their power or

mandate for their own interests. They don't care about our national interests,"

said Seng Hour.

He said that military, police officers and provincial governors promised him that

they will stop all forms of corruption.

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