A senior forestry official, based in Oddar Meanchey province’s Trapaing Prasat district, on Wednesday, denied villagers’ accusations that he had colluded with an alleged timber trader – a soldier who also denied any wrongdoing.
Residents of Trapaing Prasat village say that Trapaing Prasat district Forestry Administration chief Cheal Sophal colluded with a man known as Saroeun, a soldier based in Brigade 9, who they claim purchased timber from illegal loggers near the border with Thailand.
Villager Hieng Meng Hak told The Post on Tuesday that he found piles of luxury timber in the back yard of a house belonging to Saroeun.
He said he suspected that it might be illegal, so he called Forestry Administration chief Sophal to ask him to inspect the site and take action.
After a long wait, Meng Hak said, he saw three people on a rice tractor arrive at the site and said they had come to collect the wood.
“It made me suspicious that he [Sophal] might be involved in the timber trading. I suspect he called the owner to tell him to move the wood and cover his tracks,” he said.
Meng Hak said Saroeun had secretly been in the timber trafficking business for two years, but no one from the authorities dared to stop him or interfere in his activities.
Provincial Forestry Administration director Im Savarith told The Post that he was not aware of the case, but he believed that Sophal would not dare to get involved in criminal matters.
“I am not aware of this case, but I don’t believe he would get involved in such things. You better ask him personally,” he said.
‘It’s not true’
Sophal denied the allegations to The Post and said the villagers had accused him without evidence.
Their claims are baseless, he said, because on Tuesday he was busy at a ceremony to celebrate Arbour Day, also known as National Tree Planting Day, and had not had time to inspect the site or investigate the site.
He also said he had no relationship with a soldier named Saroeun.
“If we talk about illegal timber trafficking, I admit that I can’t crack down on all illegal wood processing locations, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t take care of this issue or be in collusion with traders. And regarding the villagers’ accusation, I cannot accept it because it’s not true,” Sophal said.
He said his team and relevant authorities educate people to stop trafficking in forestry products or run illegal timber processing businesses, and the authorities often crack down on illegal activity.
For example, Sophal said, in the past few weeks, his team had raided 20 illegal wood processing locations in Trapaing Prasat district.
The offenders were asked to sign contracts to cease their businesses, he said, and the illegal locations were closed down.
Another villager, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Post on Wednesday that when he saw the timber being transferred onto a rice tractor, he informed the commune and district police but they too did not arrive until all the timber had been carted away.
Then, two policemen arrived but, after asking several questions, they left, he said.
District police chief In Kay told The Post on Wednesday that he was informed by villagers but when the police team inspected the site, they did not see a rice tractor transporting timber.
“The police found some wood at the site, but the owner [Saroeun] claimed it was being used to build a house which was already about 80 per cent complete,” he said.
Saroeun told The Post on Wednesday that he had been collecting the timber a little bit at a time for several years, and he was using it to build a house.
“The timber belongs to me. I’ve bought and collected it a little at a time for several years. I’m not concerned about what other people say. They can say whatever they want. The important thing is I have enough wood to build my house now,” he said.
Saroeun’s wife, Leng Sok Len, told The Post: “Now our house is 80 per cent complete. Currently, I have about three cubic metres of rosewood and sokrom to build a sofa, a master bed, cabinets, a table, chairs and other furniture to decorate the house.”