Two high-ranking Apsara Authority officials were arrested yesterday, on the orders of Prime Minister Hun Sen, over the felling of a century-old rosewood tree at the Angkor Archaeological Park that caused a public outcry earlier this week.
Siem Reap Governor Khim Bunsong, said the premier ordered the immediate arrests of Chhor Thanat, deputy chief of the Apsara Authority overseeing forestry, and Chev Phal, chief of the authority’s internal office for Forestry Administration.
The arrests also followed an investigation that found the pair gave orders for the tree to be cut down, which police characterised as “illegal logging”.
“The suspects . . . apologised, but it cannot be solved like that,” Bunsong said. “So, the prime minister ordered me to arrest them immediately,” he said.
The authority, which manages the park, had said it cut down the 90-centimetre-thick tree after finding it already partially sawn into by about 15-centimetres. On its Facebook page, the authority on Sunday said it removed the tree to prevent it from falling on pedestrians and to prevent illegal loggers from taking the endangered wood.
After an uproar from the public over the tree’s removal and a strong reaction on social media, Thanat on Tuesday wrote an apology letter to Sum Mab, chief of the Apsara Authority.
Bunsong yesterday said Thanat, in the letter, said the decision to fell the tree was solely his but that local authorities had agreed. Bunsong also claimed the 15-centimetre cut was done a few years ago, and it was not a recent cut as the suspects had said.
“It was done years ago, and it was almost [healed over],” he said. “That was just their pretext.”
Thanat and Phal were both detained temporarily at the provincial police station, but Peung Chandareth, deputy provincial police chief, declined to elaborate on the case.
“We haven’t gotten deep into the matter,” he said. “We arrested them for illegal logging, but the real charge is not yet known.” Chandareth said the pair might be sent to court today.
Cambodian environmentalist Ouch Leng said that, at this point, he wasn’t sure if it was fair for the officials to have been arrested as more details were needed.
While it would be a good thing if authorities took such a strong stance against illegal logging, he added, such a stance should be applied across the board. He added that high-ranking officials are often involved in illegal logging, and authorities often confiscate wood, but arrests are rare.
“A lot of others are still at large,” he said.
Him Yun, of the Coalition for Integrity and Social Accountability, said the matter fell under the Apsara Authority and that Hun Sen shouldn’t have intervened. The authorities should have been allowed to take action, he added, noting the pair might have been made scapegoats after the public’s outcry.
A resignation from both of them would have cut it, he said. “That would have been enough.”