Police officers, gendarmes and Forestry Administration officials yesterday discovered a large cache of valuable, illegally felled wood – which locals say was destined for Vietnam – after raiding a house in Stung Treng province linked to a prominent timber trader.
Acting on a tip-off from a local villager, about 20 officials took part in the operation in Stung Treng town’s Stung Treng commune. No arrests were made, but a local village chief said the property belonged to a man known as “Oknha Thai”, a prominent logging baron in the country’s east.
Var Sophan, head of the provincial anti-economic crime police, said authorities surrounded the house in Kandal village on Monday night but waited until yesterday morning to cut the lock and enter the premises, in accordance with rules on forcing entry to private property.
Inside officers found four vehicles and “hundreds of pieces” of sawn thnong timber, a species that the Agriculture Ministry classifies as luxury wood, the official said.
“One of the vehicles, a white van, was completely loaded with timber,” Sophan said, adding there were suggestions by locals that the wood was destined for Vietnam, where thnong can yield at least $4,000 per cubic metre, according to a 2015 NGO Forum report.
Though Cambodia ostensibly banned timber exports to Vietnam last year, more than 300,000 cubic metres of wood were trucked across the border during dry season, according to a recent Environmental Investigation Agency report released last week, which alleged that officials took millions in bribes to facilitate the trade.
Though three to five people were observed at the residence on Monday, they escaped about 1am by jumping a fence, Sophan said.
Kandal Village Chief Ung Sam Oeurn said the house belonged to Oknha Thai, who had rented it to a man named Narith, who currently lives in Siem Bok district.
Oknha Thai – identified as businessman Voin Bunthai by anti-logging activist Ouch Leng – was also linked to a warehouse in Tbong Khmum province raided by an anti-logging task force in February last year.
Stung Treng Provincial Prosecutor Chreng Khmao said he was awaiting a report from the provincial Forestry Administration, which impounded the wood and whose provincial director, Meas Sophun, was unreachable yesterday.
All too often in timber busts wood was the only thing seized, Leng noted.
“People responsible for forest crimes are rarely arrested,” he said, blaming “corruption” for the impunity enjoyed by timber traders in the Kingdom, where rampant logging has devastated vast swathes of forest.