Confrontations in Mount Aural Wildlife Sanctuary between military-backed loggers
and rangers and conservation groups have again thrown the spotlight on the Cambodian
Military's plunder of the country's protected areas.
Aerial view of a bush sawmill in operation, one of dozens of such mills in Aural Wildlife Sanctuary.
The countless illegal logging operations consuming Aural's forests are variously
operated, protected or commissioned by military units, notably Military Region 3
and Battalion 313 of Brigade 31. In addition, approximately 70 Region 3 soldiers
and some of their families are occupying an area of land along the road northwest
of Kantout village, inside the wildlife sanctuary. Military Region 3 officers have
euphemistically termed this a "military development zone".
Tensions between soldiers and Ministry of Environment rangers erupted into a series
of confrontations over the weekend of March 19-21. In the worst of these, two people
- a villager, and a military policeman working with NGO Conservation International
- were shot and wounded.
Aural spans three provinces and is the wildlife sanctuary most readily accessible
from Phnom Penh. Granted protected status in 1993 in recognition of its high biodiversity
and conservation value, the area was at that time still contested by Khmer Rouge
and Government forces. Aural was subsequently ravaged by military loggers during
the so-called "anarchic" logging period of the mid 1990s.
Despite its protected status, the Aural has remained, de facto, a military fiefdom.
Military-controlled logging and sawmill operations that have transformed the sanctuary's
southern areas into a wasteland are now eating their way up into the sanctuary's
montane forest around the Aural mountain complex. Asked recently to explain the army's
mission in Aural, one Military Region 3 officer cited the area's historical reputation
as a haven for bandits and anarchic elements. Although the continued presence of
armed marauders in the sanctuary is not in doubt, the officer omitted to mention
that most are also members of the national armed forces.
Even in the Cambodian context, it is somewhat extraordinary that the military's pillage
of Mount Aural should be allowed to continue. In most countries, the highest mountain
holds a certain symbolic value and is a source of national pride. In Cambodia, by
contrast, the fate of Aural is more of an embarrassment: a testament to the lack
of political will to protect the country's natural heritage. The apparent willingness
to allow Aural to be converted into a sandpit is a tragic loss of largely unexplored
biodiversity. It is also extremely short-sighted economically as the mountain's proximity
to Phnom Penh and exceptional natural beauty would make it an ideal location for
a well-managed eco-tourism program. This option will rapidly recede, however, if
the deforestation of Aural's slopes continues.
Sawn timber being loaded onto a Military Region 4 truck, Kratie province, April 2004.
It would be wrong to assume that the military logging of Aural is an aberration.
The military's illegal extraction of timber and other forest products also poses
the most immediate threat to many of Cambodia's other protected areas. Not content
with despoiling Aural, Military Region 3 personnel, together with timber dealers,
are logging rare luxury-grade Tunloap trees in neighboring Kirirom National Park.
The wood is being exported to Vietnam and China, most probably for the production
In Phnom Samkos and Samlaut protected areas in Pursat and Battambang provinces, Military
Region 5 troops log to order for businessmen on the Thai side of the border. The
same protected areas are also a centre for illegal production of yellow vine powder
and Mreah Preuw oil, which is carried out under the supervision of Military Region
5 personnel. These high-value products are extracted from native plants and trees
through chemical processing and distillation, at a significant cost to the forest
environment. The powder and oil are trafficked to Vietnam and beyond; unverified
reports suggest that their end uses include the production of drugs such as ecstasy.
At the end of April, Military Region 5 Border Protection Battalions 501 and 502 were
continuing to run yellow-vine powder factories in Phnom Samkos and Samlaut protected
areas respectively, the latter operated by a workforce of more than 200. Border Battalion
504, meanwhile, was observed to be in possession of approximately 250 cubic meters
of illegally felled luxury timber, stored at their headquarters north of Pailin.
All three of these battalions take their orders from General Pov Saran, who commands
Region 5's Brigade 53. The enterprising General Saran also finds time to operate
a sawmill, which is conveniently situated behind his house in Pailin town.
Straddling Siem Reap, Oddar Meanchey and Preah Vihear provinces, Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife
Sanctuary is a perennial target of Military Region 4 units logging the forests along
the northern border with Thailand. As in other protected areas, the primary target
is high-grade timbers, particularly luxury species, which are then exported to Thailand
or used in the construction of opulent new hotels in Siem Reap.
A steel bridge collapsed in Snoul district, Kratie, as a timber truck was moving across on April 10. Talk at the scene was that the bridge supports had been weakened by locals stealing bolts, but there were claims of the truck being overloaded. The truck's permit was issued to a woman named Yeay Chhun, who the Snuol governor Bong Bopharith said paid for the bridge repairs. He said it was "a small issue. If we talk a lot about it, people may be afraid to come through to Mondulkiri."
In February this year, timber dealer Yeay Chhun commis-sioned Military Region 2 Battalion
204 troops to secretly log at least 70 first- and second-grade trees in Snuol Wildlife
sanctuary in Kratie. A subsequent illegal logging venture by the same parties made
a more public impression on April 10 when a steel bridge in Snuol district collapsed
under the weight of Yeay Chhun's fleet of timber trucks.
Such cases illustrate a wellestablished pattern of forest crimes committed by military
personnel in protected areas. It should be stressed that those involved include not
only Royal Cambodian Armed Forces infantry units, but also other, specialized sections
of the armed forces. The High Command Engineering Group, for example, is the main
exponent of a well-worn device by which road construction doubles as a pretext for
illegal logging. A distinctive feature of High Command Engineering Group road-building
technique is the generous expanses of forest cleared on side of the road itself.
The extra effort does not go unrewarded, however, as the Engineers are invariably
able to sell the timber they have illegally felled at a substantial profit. Such
was the case when High Command Engineers logged their way through broad tracts of
Phnom Samkos forest while constructing road 56 to the Thai border 2002-2003. The
Cambodian Navy, meanwhile, has its main base inside Ream National Park near Sihanoukville
and has long played a leading role in that area's degradation by its logging and
The destructive impact of such activities on the country's protected areas is self-evident.
Military logging operations typically target rare tree species, driving some towards
extinction within Cambodia. Toxic effluents derived from yellow-vine production,
moreover, are frequently dumped in streams and rivers, causing a more insidious form
of degradation. Soldiers engaged in such activities commonly run lucrative sidelines
in the bushmeat trade and, as with trees, the wildlife species they hunt are invariably
the rarest and least able to sustain such onslaught.
The impacts extend over and above the damage to the conservation value and biodiversity
of the country's protected areas, however. The presence of national defence forces
operating as armed criminal gangs perpetuates insecurity and has a deeply corrosive
impact on governance in remote areas of the country. Civil authorities, whose empowerment
is a key objective of donor-funded decentralization programs, are frequently sidelined
by shadow administrations structured around military patron-client relationships
and armed force.
Military logging operations also carry a heavy cost to Cambodia economically. Being
illegal, neither logging nor the extraction of products such as yellow vine and Mreah
Preuw are regulated, no taxes are paid and Cambodian citizens derive no benefit.
Luxury woods targeted by military logging typically fetch upwards of $600 per cubic
meter and the market value of these stolen state assets runs into millions if not
tens of millions of dollars per year. Beyond the value of the timber itself, the
costs of logging, in terms of environmental services such as watershed management,
are also highly significant. In a country in which rural livelihoods are derived
from systems of agriculture and fisheries based around water management, the loss
of such environmental functions is something that Cambodia can ill-afford.
Arguably the most absurd aspect of the present situation is the way in which Cambodians
are required to support a parasitic military at the expense of basic social services.
Cambodia's defence budget currently soaks up the largest share of the treasury's
meager resources at approximately 25 percent of Government expenditure. What is this
money actually spent on? On the ground observation suggests that it subsidizes military
looting of valuable natural assets from which the country could potentially derive
It is true that the basic rate of pay to RCAF soldiers is wholly inadequate and that
many communities of former soldiers depend on forest products for their livelihoods.
It is important to stress, however, that large-scale military logging operations
are not geared towards sustaining the livelihoods of impoverished foot soldiers.
Conversely, they are part of a well-established patron-client system dedicated to
filling the pockets of the generals. The system's effectiveness as a money-making
machine is illustrated by senior officers' conspicuous expenditure on fleets of Landcruisers
and Phnom Penh real estate. Cambodia continues to bear the burden of a military whose
core capacity is theft of the country's natural resources rather than protection
of its borders.
In line with an overall trend, there are strong indications that military logging
has expanded over the course of the past year. Such activities have flourished in
a political vacuum in which Government functionaries claim they no longer have the
authority to enforce the law. Moreover, as in other state agencies, notably the Forest
Administration, it is likely that RCAF officers have intensified their black economy
enterprises in the race to purchase more senior positions under the new Government.
Military logging is not a new phenomenon, however, so much as continuation of the
so-called "anarchic" logging which ministers regularly congratulate themselves
on having eradicated. "Anarchic" logging peaked in the mid to late 1990s
as lawlessness in the countryside collided with rising tension between CPP and Funcinpec
and the efforts of both to enhance their off-budget incomes. The primary perpetrators
of this "anarchy" were those responsible for ensuring Cambodia's security:
the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.
While the scale of the plunder has certainly declined, the "anarchic" military
loggers never really disappeared. Instead they found refuge, somewhat ironically,
in wildlife sanctuaries and other protected areas. Cambodia's protected area system
was drawn up in 1993, at a time when Government troops were still battling Khmer
Rouge forces in remote areas of the country. The Government of the time found it
expedient to assign protected status to regions which it did not control and several
of the protected areas have a recent history of military operations. Through these,
RCAF units established informal zones of influence and control which they have since
proved reluctant to relinquish.
The transfer of predatory military units away from protected areas has been successfully
effected in the past by NGOs and local officials in Koh Kong province. Ultimately,
however, the issue cannot be resolved through local-level negotiations alone. Military
rape of protected areas remains a chronic problem and one which calls into question
the state's capacity to control its own armed forces.
What is urgently required is a commitment from the highest levels of Government to
permanently remove all military units from the vicinity of Cambodia's protected areas.
Such a commitment needs to be accompanied by a clear and time-bound action plan for
implementation. Decisive action now would reap benefits not only in terms of conservation
but also in the realm of governance reform. Without it, Cambodia faces terminal damage
to its natural heritage and the long-term entrenchment of military power structures
dedicated to organized crime.