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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - UN, Illegal Loggers Locked in Cat and Mouse Game

UN, Illegal Loggers Locked in Cat and Mouse Game

In mid March, a UN team of military observers patrolling a forest trail in northeastern

Cambodia came across a man carrying a battery pack and wearing a hard hat equipped

with a headlight.

When asked what he was doing, the man replied he was looking for his lost water buffalo.

For the two U.N. officers, it was another piece of data to send to their superiors

in Phnom Penh which could indicate illegal logging along the Vietnamese border.

For the locals of Mondulkiri, where many of the residents openly admit they are employed

in the illicit trade, it was just one more episode in the bizarre cat-and-mouse game

that goes on between the U.N. military observers (UNMOs) and loggers flouting a U.N.-imposed

ban on the export of logs.

The United Nations ordered the moratorium in December, ostensibly to help conserve

Cambodia's forest lands, but also as a way of increasing pressure on the hard-line

Khmer Rouge faction to rejoin the faltering peace plan.

Since the ban came into effect on Jan 1 and further restrictions imposed on the export

of sawn timber in February, the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia

(UNTAC) has identified the Khmer Rouge and the Phnom Penh administration as the major

violators of the ban.

Evidence uncovered by UNMOs in Keo Sima district in southern Mondulkiri, Cambodia's

second largest and least populated province, suggests the ban has forced loggers

to move their activities to the night time.

Since they were deployed in on Feb. 10, the Keo Sima UNMOs, who declined to be identified,

have yet to find a loaded logging truck attempting to cross the border. But they

have found large stockpiles of wood throughout the jungle, at times consisting of

more than 20 logs, some up to 20 meters long and 3 meters wide, trimmed, stacked,

coded and ready for shipment.

They have also found three unofficial crossing points into Vietnam and some 60 unmapped

roads, many freshly cut and in better condition than the main road to the border.

"There are no villagers in there, the roads go nowhere so we are led to believe

that they are being used for logging," one of the officers said.

The UNMOs said the logging going on in eastern Cambodia is on a much smaller scale

than in the west of the war-torn country, where Thai timber companies have clear-felled

large areas concessioned off by the Khmer Rouge.

"It is not like South America where they slash and burn whole areas. Here they

come in and select and mark individual trees which they will take out later,"

one said.

The most sought after trees include rosewood and teak.

"The problem is they cut the wood wet and ship it wet, which warps the wood

and causes it to lose much of its value," the UNMO noted.

All the four warring factions in Cambodia blame each other for illegal logging and

routinely report the violations to the United Nations. Vietnam also says it has closed

its borders to the import of raw logs from Cambodia.

But locals in Mondulkiri say it is an open secret that most of the logging is carried

out by Vietnamese for Vietnamese companies.

"If you want to log in Mondulkiri you have to approach one of two big businessmen

who will act as agents with the provincial authorities," said a Khmer employed

by UNTAC as an interpreter in the province.

"Once an agreement is struck the government will provide CPAF (Cambodian People's

Armed Forces) troops to protect them. The cutting is done by Vietnamese. The CPAF

troops themselves don't cut trees," he said.

But a policeman at the border check point to Vietnam said he had allowed several

log-laden government army trucks to pass through during the daylight since the ban

was imposed.

The guard, who mans a red and white barrier beam weighted at one end with a large

unexploded shell of Vietnam War vintage explained the local soldiers hadn't been

paid since last October.

"They have to eat and they have families to feed," he said. As he was speaking

a nearby government soldier shouldered his AK-47 and shot a parrot out of tree for

his lunch.

The Khmer Rouge controls an estimated 20 percent of Mondulkiri province but local

villagers said the faction were more interested in logging than politics.

"They never really bother us. They are not interested in the election, the only

thing they care about is logging," said Meuk Si Lat from Chhnang village, which

is deep inside Khmer Rouge-held territory in southeastern Mondulkiri.

Despite the apparent relaxed atmosphere that surrounds the illegal logging, patrolling

the area is not without its dangers.

An UNMO patrol was investigating a logging trail in March when they were surprised

by gunmen suspected to be Khmer Rouge soldiers.

The bandits fired shots around the feet of the UNMO team which included a Uruguayan

major, Chinese captain and three Uruguayan soldiers as escorts.

"When they aimed a B-40 (rocket launcher) at us, we said 'OK'," one of

the UNMOs said with his hands raised in a reenactment of their willingness to cooperate.

The bandits robbed the soldiers of three machine guns, a pistol, radios and personal


The following week the Khmer Rouge returned the submachine guns and asked the UNMOs

for a U.S. $1,000 donation for their assistance in recovering the lost weapons from


The radios and pistols were not returned.

Later that month UNMOs found two bodies, one burned, lying along forest trails. While

an investigation has yet to ascertain whether the two murders were related to illegal

logging, politics or were simple acts of crime the discovery adds to the air of lawlessness

in the province.

The UNMOs in Keo Sima liken their job to that of forest rangers.

While they have powers of arrest they see their role more as that of observers and

gatherers of information.

"It is not going to do much good to arrest the man on the ground, the guy with

a chain say in his hand or the guy driving the bulldozer. Our main objective is to

gather [intelligence] and let Phnom Penh work out the big picture."

The officers said that while they get little support from higher authorities in their

fight against illegal logging, it is a position they understand and support.

"It's a question of prioritisation and resources," one said.

"Monitoring cease-fire violations is far more important than trying to stop

a guy dragging a log across the border," he said

Nevertheless, the two officers are confident they are having an impact on the illegal

logging. They cite the recently employed tactic of loggers of cutting down trees

across the forest trails to hinder the UNMOs patrols.

But at the same time they note that there whole duty has a sense of the absurd about


In neighboring Kratie province, an American company is legally felling trees and

exporting timber to the United States.

"Technically, if they set up a sawmill and get a legal permit to cut timber,

there is nothing we could do stop them-as long as they had a licence-because the

moratorium only applies to raw logs not processed wood," one of the officers


"But don't go and tell them that."



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