Cambodia's military police said yesterday that they have sealed the Vietnam border against wood transport following a major crackdown on two tycoons’ logging warehouses on Sunday. Local observers and experts, however, suggested the actions were little more than a hiccup for a long-tolerated illicit trade.
According to military police officials, forces have been deployed to known major border crossings and to checkpoints in Mondulkiri, Ratanakkiri, Kratie and Prey Veng provinces, collectively staffed by 205 personnel. Regular travel is permitted, but both legal and illegal wood is being halted.
At Prime Minister Hun Sen’s urging, government officials have created a new committee to combat illegal logging, with representatives from police, military police, the Forestry Administration and the border provinces.
Deputy national military police chief Vong Pisen said his forces observed loggers departing the woods empty-handed after the crackdown. About 300 empty trucks reportedly left the forests in Kratie and Mondulkiri on Friday. Usually, these would be loaded with wood.
National military police chief Sao Sokha – who has been tasked with leading the crackdown, and who has himself been previously accused of involvement in the illegal timber trade – said, “The situation has become calm and there is no transportation of wood from Cambodia to Vietnam and inside the country.”
However, a community group in Mondulkiri’s Pech Chreada and O’Raing districts told rights group Adhoc that timber was still being felled and moved across the border, especially at night.
“Everything is not like what the prime minister’s order said. The new committee has not acted on the forest crime here yet,” said Adhoc coordinator Sok Ratha yesterday.
Police also yesterday revealed a portion of their haul from raids on the Tbong Khmum warehouses of tycoon Lim Bunna – who had been named by a government spokesman, along with tycoon Soeng Sam Ol, on the heels of the premier’s call for action.
Bunna’s warehouse contained more than 2,000 pieces of timber, adding up to more than 815 cubic metres, with officials still counting. One of Sam Ol’s warehouses that was also raided near the border did not have much wood, Pisen said.
Both military police and Agriculture Ministry spokesman Eang Sophalleth said they did not know whether the wood was acquired legally or illegally.
“[Police found] some documents that were issued for them by some state institutions,” said Sokha, but added that officials have yet to study them in depth.
Police also said they found three illegal logging sites in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima district, with a total of 1,000 and 2,000 cubic metres of timber piled up.
They also found sites in Kratie’s Sambor district, including timber carried in from Stung Treng, Mondulkiri and Kratie.
Military police chief Sokha said that this was only the first step, and that his forces are on permanent standby. The logging committee has two military helicopters to make patrols easier.
But environmental groups said they did not have high hopes that this momentum will last.
Marcus Hardtke, the Southeast Asia coordinator for German conservation group ARA, said that similar crackdowns with military police participation happened in the past in the Cardamom Mountains, but logging reappeared after a few months.
Such raids usually happen when some businessmen try to defy the illicit agreements that govern illegal logging in the country, he added.
Jonathan Eames, a program manager with BirdLife International, said that these crackdowns have the effect of thinning the herd of illegal loggers, leaving more profits for “the chosen ones”.
Preap Kol, director of Transparency International Cambodia, noted that a “network of authorities and officials” benefit from the logging business at varying levels, and likened the crackdown to “a thunderstorm, which will last a short period of time”.
Eng Hy, a military police spokesman, meanwhile, denied that there is a “conspiracy” between officials and illegal loggers.
However, an expert working with forestry officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, maintained that Sam Ol had an “agreement” with powerful people to trade timber from economic land concessions in Mondulkiri, and had a presence in Tbong Khmum.
Meanwhile, Adhoc coordinator Neang Sovath called Lim Bunna the “king of the wood” in Tbong Khmum. “There was nobody that could touch him,” Sovath said.