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Timber-laden RCAF trucks taking ‘cooking’ fuel to garment factories

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces trucks loaded with timber sit in a parking area yesterday at the SL Garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces trucks loaded with timber sit in a parking area yesterday at the SL Garment factory in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. Heng Chivoan

Timber-laden RCAF trucks taking ‘cooking’ fuel to garment factories

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces trucks are being used to haul timber to Phnom Penh garment factories, despite Defence Ministry and RCAF insistence that the practice is illegal and forbidden.

Brown smoke billowed yesterday from a chimney within the Meanchey district compound of SL Garment factory, whose website last year boasted more than a dozen international brands as clients. Feeding the smoke are truckloads of timber, which arrive on a daily basis.

Post reporters were denied access to the compound, but from a vantage point outside they were able to count 11 trucks, their beds stacked high with timber. At least two of those vehicles bore RCAF licence plates and infantry insignia.

Outside the front gate, four trucks with civilian plates stood idle, their beds empty except for timber shavings. Three mechanics were tinkering with one of their engines. One of the trio, a 24-year-old from Kampong Cham who declined to be named, said each of them is paid $150 a month to transport timber for PSKV Construction Company, a sawmill located inside a Kampong Speu economic land concession (ELC).

Marcus Hardtke, a conservationist with more than 20 years’ experience in Cambodia, said yesterday that satellite imagery shows minimal loggable timber within the ELC’s bounds. He noted, however, that the forests within neighbouring Oral Wildlife Sanctuary remain plentiful.

“I really doubt that any of this [timber] is sourced from inside any concession,” Hardtke said.

The 24-year-old mechanic presented reporters with an authorisation slip from PSKV. The 67-year-old employee who answered the phone number on the slip also declined to be named.

However, he did confirm that military vehicles regularly transport timber from the company’s sawmill to Phnom Penh factories, while insisting that timber is always legally sourced from within ELCs.

“Between one and two military trucks transport firewood; they go to Phnom Penh to the SL factory and one other,” he said.Tith Phearith, a former employee of PSKV who said he resigned after growing tired of calls from international organisations, confirmed yesterday that military trucks transported timber from the sawmill, although he did not know where to.

Trucks loaded with wood, bearing RCAF insignias and number plates, sit in a parking area of SL Garment factory yesterday in Meanchey district.
Trucks loaded with wood, bearing RCAF insignias and number plates, sit in a parking area of SL Garment factory yesterday in Meanchey district. Heng Chivoan

“They just showed a letter from the Defence Ministry,” Phearith said.

Brigadier General Kong Bun Thorn – chief of staff for Military Region 3, which encompasses Kampong Speu – said yesterday that he was unaware of army vehicles being used to haul timber to enterprises in the capital, adding that firewood is frequently used for cooking at Region 3’s 10 military training centres.

General Mao Phalla – spokesman for RCAF’s infantry, whose insignia the trucks at SL bore – said yesterday that he, too, was unaware infantry vehicles were being used in a garment factory’s supply chain, but that he would raise the issue at an upcoming meeting.

“Cooking with firewood helps to reduce expenses . . . but no military units allow soldiers to do such a thing,” Phalla said.

A series of Defence Ministry memos, confiscated by rangers from a timber transporter in Oral Wildlife Sanctuary and obtained by the Post, show senior RCAF and Defence Ministry officials taking a keen interest in ensuring Military Region 3 forces are adequately furnished with trucks to transport “firewood” and that those trucks travel unimpeded.

“Could you help facilitate two trucks from Military Region 3 to pass tollbooths to/from Phnom Penh free of charge,” reads a handwritten note from Defence Ministry Secretary of State General Neang Phat to Ministry of Public Works and Transport Secretary of State Eung Bunhov, dated March 4, 2013.

Six days later, Military Region 3 commander General Yoeung Sokhon sought Kampong Speu provincial authorities’ authorisation for three trucks to transport firewood to cook with at headquarters. Provincial Governor Kang Heang approved the request on March 25.

The following February, Sokhon requested approval from Kandal Forestry Administration chief Chantheth Thanarak for two Region 3 tucks to transport firewood through the province, which sits outside Region 3 in the Special Military Region.

Two further similar requests were made by Sokhon in 2014. Late last year, Sokhon approved a request from Region 3 Infantry for four trucks to be fitted with military insignia and licence plates.

A series of memos on the matter eventually led to Secretary of State General Phat forwarding the request to director of the Defence Ministry’s Technical Department General Chao Phirun, who was one of many generals singled out for corruption by Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2010.

Neither Sokhon or Phat were contactable for comment yesterday.

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