North of the Sesan River, in protected forests that stretch to the border with Laos and Vietnam, illegal timber traders describe a network of bribery that leaves them counting their riels, despite the multimillion-dollar nature of the industry.
In contrast to the large flat-bed trucks owned by timber baron Try Pheap that ply the province’s roads – identifiable by the code number on the windshields: 1168 – small-scale traders must pay their dues to the scores of languid officials who have set up hammocks by the roadsides, creating unofficial checkpoints to cash in on a business that has only grown since the tycoon was granted sole transportation rights last year.
The traders load up their motorbikes with hundreds of kilograms of luxury wood that could easily crush an arm or a leg, deftly navigating the tracks, which can morph from dustbowl to muddy brook in a matter of minutes.
“Hello, brother, I would like to ask your permission to transport this stuff,” Soeun Song*, one such trader, calls out to a snoozing police officer. Song deals with a dizzying array of officials, from the police and military, to Forestry Administration officers whose job it is to stamp out the trade in protected timber.
Song travels with six other traders and a couple of scouts whose job it is to ride ahead through Kachon, Bakham and Phnom Kuk communes and deliver the officials’ “tea money”, a euphemism for a bribe.
“Mixed authorities who install posts along the roads to get money tell us motorbike transporters, if we transport it through their area, to let them know, otherwise they will arrest us immediately,” he said.
“We do this kind of illegal business, so we have to pay them,” he continued.
Since more officials set up shop by the roadside in recent months, it has become much easier to communicate, as the officials have offered up their phone numbers to passing traders.
“We are not afraid, because all the officers get money from us. They will not arrest us provided we tell them [we are coming].”
Song and other traders – with whom the Post travelled undercover last week – questioned the government’s repeated pledges to stop forest crimes in the area.
“If we want to escape, we cannot do it, because they [officials] guard everywhere. That’s why I am always saying with my colleagues that forest crimes are not difficult to prevent, if the law enforcers take action,” Song said.
Another trader, Va Rady*, from Nhang commune, joked that “the only officials we don’t have to pay are the teachers”.
Two officials whom numerous traders identified as being key players in the alleged bribery network told the Post they had no knowledge of its existence.
Hai Phivath, Veun Sai commune forestry director, whom the loggers pointed to as being at the centre of the network of graft, challenged any corrupt officials under his command to come to his office to be reprimanded.
“If our officials took money from them, I want [the officials] to come, and I will point out that they should not have acted like this,” he said, adding that it would “take some time” to investigate the allegations.
However, when the Post left the Forestry Administration office, two young men in hammocks by the roadside, who identified themselves as the sons of Phivath, said they were “waiting to collect money from the loggers”.
At the eerily quiet Veun Sai district police station, chief of police Teur Thorn, who was also fingered as involved in the racket, said he had not taken any money from the traders, and took pains to intercept illegal transports.
“We take tough measures in this case, so I do not know which administrative police act like this; the rules are so strict. If the wood traders have licences, they will pay tax to the state,” he said.
According to the traders interviewed last week, they do pay a form of tax, though it won’t appear on the books at provincial hall in Banlung City.
Song says that getting environment officials, police and military police to look the other way is the most costly – up to $5 per officer per load – whereas forest wardens sometimes settle for as little as $2.50.
“When they see us transporting good quality timber, they think we are really rich. But, in reality, we earn just enough to pay the authorities off.”
When their cargo of Thnong wood reaches the dealers in Banlung City, who are thought to supply Try Pheap, Song will make about $250, he says, which will leave him with only about $20 by the time he gets home.
It is not unheard of, he adds, for the often slippery roads to cause the overloaded bikes to flip backward and crush the rider.
While most of the wood ends up with Pheap, he says, some traders try to sell directly to buyers in Vietnam – only a few kilometres away – who pay much more attractive rates.
“It is difficult to get away with if we do not sell it to Try Pheap,” he said.
Pheap and spokesman Ouk Kemsan could not be reached.
Sa Em*, a trader from Andong Meas district, told much the same story as Song, estimating that he can only pull in $20 from each perilous journey.
“Because I couldn’t find a job, I chose this one. The authorities have never intercepted us since we started giving money to them,” he said.
* Names have been changed to protect identities