Early on Monday morning, at about 1am, two trucks carrying roughly 10 cubic metres of illegally felled timber were bouncing down the road between Oddar Meanchey and Siem Reap.
Police stopped the trucks – one of which bore military plates – and seized the haul, but the drivers, a Siem Reap police official said, “escaped into the dark”.
A little over six months after Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a circular ordering authorities to step up their efforts to stamp out illegal logging, luxury timber seizures are a regular fixture of media reports, but incidents such as the one above have come to typify the crackdown on illegal logging.
There have been at least a dozen timber seizures covered by the Post since the premier’s announcement on February 21. In one, a suspect died in a car chase with Forestry Administration (FA) officers. In another, police promised to summons a suspect for questioning, though no arrests were made.
But out of those dozen seizures, only one resulted in actual arrests – a situation that observers and rights groups say typifies the enforcement of the Kingdom’s anti-logging laws and betrays a lack of will, or possibly scruples, on the part of enforcers.
Chhay Thy, a coordinator for the rights group Adhoc who has dealt extensively with illegal logging in Ratanakkiri province, said the line between officers and offenders in the illegal timber trade was blurry at best.
“They are the same group, so police alert the offenders before raiding. Some arrests are just an excuse to make a report,” he said, noting that officers rarely perform due diligence when it comes to tracking suspects.
“Cars have a licence plate number, which is a clue for police to go look for the owners to bring them to justice, but they don’t,” he said.
Thon Sarath, an official with the Ministry of Agriculture, declined to comment on logging arrests and referred questions to provincial authorities. Battambang provincial FA chief Pit Phearak, however, maintained yesterday that timber smugglers simply have too much at stake to go along quietly.
“They do not stand still for us to arrest them,” he said. “They abandon even luxury cars and escape. They are well prepared.”
Looking at some seizure reports, however, the line that suspects simply “escaped into the dark” beggars belief.
In one instance in May, police stopped a truck carrying 10 tonnes of rosewood. Rather than arrest the driver, officers boarded the bed of the truck, and instructed him to drive himself to the police station. En route, the man opened his door and leapt from the moving vehicle, leaving the truck to career off the road with the police still on board.
In another bust earlier this month that was emblematic of others across the country, police uncovered five cubic metres of rosewood on a plantation in Pursat province. Authorities, however, didn’t arrest the plantation owner, with acting Kravanh district police chief Vorng Vet explaining at the time that, even though police believed the man was lying, they didn’t arrest him because “he did not confess”.
Chea Hean, director of the National Resource and Wildlife Preservation Organization, was jailed in 2010 on accusations levelled against him by a local official who was among 241 civil servants accused of abetting the illegal logging industry in a complaint he filed to the ACU. Yesterday, Hean attributed the lack of arrests to both apathy and a tendency among officers to skim timber off of the top of seizures.
“They just arrest the evidence, not the suspects, because it takes them a long time to send suspects to court,” he said, accusing officers of under-reporting the amount of timber seized, then selling the difference. “When there are no suspects, they just take the timber and then end the case.”
Villagers in Ratanakkiri filed a complaint to Adhoc just last week accusing a local official of complicity in illegal logging. According to the complaint, volunteer forest patrollers had seized 30 logs that were illegally felled in a community forest, only to have a local commune police officer order them – at gunpoint – to return the confiscated timber to the loggers.
Allegations of corruption among logging enforcers extends far beyond the local level. One observer, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the subject, posited that Hun Sen never intended the crackdown to generate arrests, but rather to let illegal loggers continue their operations while “letting them know it’s not a free-for-all”.
“If you introduce a new law, or a new regulation, it’s just a new way of taxing,” the observer said, citing interviews and direct observation. “You never really try to enforce the law, you just try to tax the law. It creates new opportunities for revenue generation.”
“Seizures are a new way of laundering timber, because when the government seizes timber they get to auction it off.… It’s legal. I think the law becomes an instrument for the accumulation of wealth.”