Minister of Agriculture Ouk Rabun yesterday dismissed allegations of large-scale illegal timber smuggling by the Try Pheap Group published in a report by UK-based corruption monitor Global Witness last week.
Global Witness’s report, The Cost of Luxury, identified Pheap, a prominent tycoon and former adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, as the head of an elaborate timber smuggling network that illegally felled and collected trees before shipping them to China to fuel the demand for ornate hongmu furniture.
But Rabun was quick to dismiss the claims yesterday.
“Global Witness does not understand our procedure. In reality, we have clear procedures for exporting timber without any conspiracy,” he said.
“If we did [conspire], they could not take pictures of the containers at ports,” he said, referring to photographs Global Witness said showed protected rosewood and other timber being shipped to Hong Kong from the Sihanoukville Autonomous Port.
The eight-month undercover investigation published by Global Witness tracked protected timber, such as Siamese rosewood, from forest logging camps allegedly run by Pheap’s employees, to the border with Vietnam and Sihanoukville port, where the wood was loaded into containers headed for Hong Kong.
The group said Pheap had used the smuggling network, which it estimated ships 900 cubic metres of timber from Sihanoukville every day, to facilitate the “large-scale industrial takeover” of Cambodia’s protected areas.
Prak Vuthy, general manager of Pheap’s MDS Import Export company, also rejected the findings of the report.
Ouch Leng, president of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, said that Pheap had been awarded licenses to collect timber without legislative review or a transparent bidding process, which was evidence of a “systematic conspiracy” to illegally export luxury timber.
“We have seen the content of the licenses and bidding documents the government gives to Try Pheap. It has too much secrecy and it is illegal, so we need transparency from the government,” he said.
In October, the Post revealed that more than $227 million of illegally logged rosewood was allegedly exported from the Cardamom Mountains by MDS Import Export using a licence to clear a reservoir.
Global Witness did not immediately respond to a request for comment.