Axe-wielding assailants injured a well-known environmental activist from the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) as she was patrolling a section of Prey Lang forest in Kratie province with her group early on Sunday morning.
Phon Sopheak, 25, who accepted an award from the United Nations Development Programme on behalf of the PLCN in Paris last year, suffered a deep wound to her left leg and a smaller wound to her calf as she was resting.
“I think I was likely attacked with an axe,” Sopheak – who was unable to see her assailants in the dark of the forest – said in a phone call from Kratie Provincial Hospital yesterday.
Prey Lang experts said that as loggers push deeper into the forest, as valuable timber dwindles and as locals’ patience runs short, violent confrontations become likelier.
Sopheak was among 52 activists from PLCN patrolling the forest on 45 motorbikes between Wednesday and Sunday.
During the sweep, which the group has done routinely over the past 10 years, they intercepted multiple logging operations, seizing 14 chainsaws and more than 10 cubic metres of timber.
The activists coerced over 20 loggers to sign agreements promising to stop committing forestry crimes. One group of 10 loggers likely decided to retaliate with a nighttime sneak attack, according to activist Phay Bunleang.
The patrol team was sleeping in their hammocks, when one of their lookouts saw a light moving towards Sopheak. The activists assumed it belonged to one of them.
“I heard my motorbike fall on me – that woke me up,” said Sopheak. “I did not realise that I was attacked until I looked at my leg.”
The activists could not make out the attackers’ identities or their total number. They did not follow the fleeing assailants, concerned that they might be armed.
Since the 10 loggers detained earlier all hail from Kampong Thom, the activists plan to look up their identities
“Such an attack has never happened to us before,” said Hoeun Sopheap, another activist who went with Sopheak to Paris. “We are concerned about our work and afraid this will make some activists feel fear and stop patrolling with us.”
However, the patrols will continue, Sopheap added.
Prey Lang has a long history of people being attacked, dating back to the earliest days of the government’s economic land concessions program, according to Dr Fran Lambrick, from the environmental campaign group N1M.
Following the murder of renowned environmentalist Chut Wutty in 2012, threats against Prey Lang Network members increased, she said, adding that illegal loggers, pushing them to abandon the patrols, would ask, “Aren’t you afraid of dying like Chut Wutty?”
Last year, loggers began increasingly using advanced equipment that can fell a tree and put it in a truck in the span of a minute. More loggers are competing for fewer valuable trees with increasing frustration.
Death threats routinely follow chainsaw seizures, according to Pan Setha, a forestry official from Preah Vihear. Since last year’s murder of two forest rangers in Preah Vihear’s Choam Ksan district, also in the middle of the night, patrol teams should be more careful when sleeping in the woods, he said.
In a separate case, Chork Cha community members accompanying a joint patrol force briefly detained more than 40 villagers for clearing in the Keo Seima protected forest in Mondulkiri on Sunday.
Meak Vuthy, director of the Keo Seima Biodiversity Sanctuary, said that most of those people are migrants, coming from Prey Veng, Kampong Cham and Kratie provinces.
Authorities released them after determining they had only begun clearing and had thus far stuck to small trees. They were forced to sign non-logging agreements.
“If this was a severe case, we would detain and send them to the court,” said Vuthy. “We asked them whether someone hired them to clear the land, but they said nothing. They were trying to hide.”
The patrol team seized 15 chainsaws, 33 machetes, two axes, two crossbows and a homemade rifle.
Earlier this month, joint forces arrested two villagers for clearing in the same protected area but had to free them after more villagers protested and blocked the road. Vuthy said that a complaint has been filed with the court.