Over 2,000ha out of more than 10,000ha of flooded forestland around the Tonle Sap Lake have been seized, with more than a dozen offenders already begging for clemency for their encroachment on the protected areas which the government says must be preserved as fish-spawning habitat.

The confiscation came just one day after Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Chea Sophara and other relevant authorities to investigate the “anarchy” taking place around the lake and crack down on the widespread encroachment and deforestation there.

Before the operation began, the land management ministry set up six working groups with components from different ministries to investigate portions of six provinces around the lake: Kampong Chhnang, Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Kampong Thom.

Kampong Chhnang provincial governor Sun Sovannarith told The Post on November 29 that the working group had already confiscated more than 2,000ha of flooded forestland in Kampong Leng district’s Chranouk commune.

He said 13 people were involved in the encroachment in that area but all of them had come forward and confessed in order to try and get clemency. The authorities did not arrest them but instead warned and educated them – despite Hun Sen’s direct admonition in his speech the previous evening that the time for “educating” offenders was over with.

“We are working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries and provincial administration to come up with a plan to reforest this area. We will plant trees that are resilient and will thrive in the flooded areas,” he said.

Royal Academy of Cambodia president Sok Touch – who set the wheels in motion on this operation with his investigation of the areas around the lake which he reported to Hun Sen – told The Post on November 29 that the 2,000ha of flooded forest was just a small portion of the total area that has been encroached upon by just a small group of people.

Touch said the other provinces around Tonle Sap also suffered from even more serious encroachments – covering tens of thousands of hectares – and that many high-ranking officials there were involved.

“The 2,000ha of land confiscated is just a small portion. There are numerous people involved. What I have found is that up to tens of thousands of hectares have been encroached upon and we have to seize all of the land back from them.

“In Pursat, the encroachment is bad enough that a village has even formed in the middle of the forest there. The 2,000ha they just took back involved just one person’s crimes. There are still hundreds of more people involved,” he said.

Agriculture minister Veng Sakhon said the investigation had found that many thousands of hectares of flooded forested had been destroyed. In Kampong Thom alone, he said there are already a total of 40 cases being prepared for referral to court.

The 40 cases of encroachment upon flooded forestlands in Kampong Thom cover more than 3,566ha with the crimes taking place from 2019 to 2021 across the four districts of Stung Sen, Baray, Stong and Kampong Svay.

“All of these cases have been sent to the Kampong Thom Provincial Court by our officials from the provincial agriculture department who acted in their capacity as judicial police. The cases are now in the hands of the investigating judge.

“Only one out of the 40 cases has been tried, but the verdict has not yet been delivered by the court and the defendant in that case is – unfortunately – the deputy prosecutor of the Kampong Thom Provincial Court,” Sakhon said.

Sok Touch said the flooded forests must be reclaimed and restored because they are where the lake’s fish spawn.

He noted that fish from the Tonle Sap Lake has been the main source of protein in the diet of the Cambodian people for thousands of years and if the encroachment and deforestation continues, it will end up destroying those fisheries.