Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered police to arrest anyone – including government officials – involved with the deforestation of the flooded forests surrounding the Tonle Sap Lake because it is an area important to the spawning of many species of fish, among other reasons.

Speaking in a special audio address to the nation on November 28, Hun Sen said large-scale deforestation had occurred anarchically in the provinces adjacent to the Tonle Sap Lake, especially in Kampong Chhnang province.

“Anarchic deforestation is unacceptable and unforgivable for those officials who have exercised their territorial authority to facilitate it at the provincial or district levels or any other officials who are involved in encroachment upon flooded forests to occupy the land,” he said. “The same goes for the general public. We cannot accept any encroachment upon the flooded forests in the Tonle Sap area.”

He said he had received information on this matter from Royal Academy of Cambodia (RAC) president Sok Touch who had researched and investigated criminal encroachment in the area surrounding the lake and determined that thousands of hectares of flooded forests have already been destroyed.

Hun Sen ordered that the areas that have already been deforested be reclaimed as state property and that the provincial governors act in cooperation with the police and military forces to crack down on these crimes.

“I use the words ‘crack down’ not ‘educate’. We don’t have time for education anymore,” he said.

He ordered Minister of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction Chea Sophara to lead an urgent meeting with other relevant ministries as well as the Tonle Sap Authority and National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha.

“For Kampong Chhnang, I’ve just heard that the former provincial governor who just left his position had deforested more than 2,000ha of flooded forests in recent months. I don’t care if the land actually belongs to the former provincial governor – who is currently an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Interior – or whoever it is [that owns it] at whatever level. All of the land must be confiscated and reclaimed as state property,” he said.

“[Commander] Sao Sokha has to take action immediately and lead forces into these areas using the waterways and by helicopter to solve this problem and protect these flooded forest areas. Soon, the water levels will decrease and the [perpetrators] will start growing crops or resume their destruction of the forest. We won’t allow any planting of crops on the land and it will all be confiscated,” he said.

He ordered the police to arrest anyone involved and also instructed Anti-Corruption Unit chief Om Yentieng to investigate any officials involved in these crimes, build cases against them to refer to court and have all of them arrested.

“The government is so exhausted. We don’t have time to educate offenders again and again on the same problems that they are causing. You must keep it in the forefront of your minds that we don’t have time for education any longer. Only full enforcement of the law can solve this issue,” he said.

He instructed Sokha to take the lead in the operation followed by the joint forces from relevant ministries and institutions.

“By all means and at any cost we must take the land back. The land must be reforested and protected as habitat for the spawning of fish in the Tonle Sap Lake like in the past. The perpetrators must be held accountable before the law without any excuses,” he said.

Hun Sen urged any officials who were involved in the deforestation or encroachment to come forward and make their confessions now before the authorities take action by confiscating their properties and arresting them. He said he could not forgive any opportunist officials who had taken advantage of Covid-19 to grab state land.

“These people do not deserve to be officials anymore. They should be spending the night in prison rather than even one more night as a government official,” he said, adding that he apologised to the public for not having gotten this issue under control sooner, begged their forgiveness and fully accepted any public criticism for the situation.

Reached by The Post on Sunday, RAC president Touch declined to give further details about the crimes.

“This is a huge issue that I cannot explain at this time because it is related to my security. If they decide to shoot me, I can easily be killed,” he said.

However, Touch had posted many images of himself and his investigating team working in Kampong Chhnang province.

“Real researchers need to find the truth and they don’t make up useless stories. We need to go where the problem is in order to solve the problem,” he said in a Facebook post on November 27.

Reached for comment on Sunday, former Kampong Chhnang governor Chhuor Chandoeun – who was singled out for blame in Hun Sen’s speech – said he did not own any land adjacent to the lake.

He said that in the past, encroachments upon flooded forests had happened in the villages and communes and as the provincial governor at the time he had worked with those local authorities to prevent these crimes and had not issued ownership titles to any individuals.

“Speaking for myself, I don’t have land near the Lake. Let’s wait and see what the intervention group that [Hun Sen] sent out to investigate finds. I for one am looking forward to it,” he said.

National Military Police commander Sokha told The Post on November 28 that he began implementing the prime minister’s orders immediately after receiving them and that he would lead a meeting before going down to the areas in question.

“We have the means and our forces are ready to go. If our forces at the provincial and district levels are not enough, we have additional intervention forces that can respond if necessary,” he said.