Notorious Vietnamese timber trader Nguyen Thimay, more commonly known as “Grandma May”, is again free and, according to locals and officials in Oddar Meanchey, back in business – despite having been busted with a huge stockpile of rosewood in her home last year.

In February 2017, some 2 tonnes of rosewood were discovered in Thimay’s Anlong Veng commune home. She was finally arrested in November and charged with violating articles 96 and 98 of the Forestry Law for illegal felling of timber.

The charges carry up to a five-year sentence, plus fines ranging from about $2,500 to $25,000, on top of the cost of the impounded evidence. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime statistics, the value of the rosewood found in her home would range from the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the quality.

Nonetheless, she was released on bail in late January, according Soy Kanya, Oddar Meanchey Provincial Court clerk. He declined to answer further questions, such as if her trial is proceeding.

This was not Thimay’s only brush with the law in 2017. In July, she was arrested in Kampong Thom province for faking licence plates, and was later handed the minimum fine and sentenced to the minimum two years in prison – with all but the three months already served suspended. She walked free despite facing an arrest warrant at the time in Oddar Meanchey.

A plateless vehicle that was carrying more than a thousand kilograms of rosewood is seen flipped in a muddy pothole in Oddar Meanchey province last May. Villagers claim it belonged to notorious timber smuggler Nguyen Thimay but the case has remained in investigation. Photo supplied

Presiding Kampong Thom Provincial Court Judge Seng Bunna, who handed down the sentence, said he couldn’t recall the particulars of the case and declined to comment.

In Anlong Veng district, 38-year-old villager Sam Sarith told The Post on Sunday that he had seen Thimay the day before at a sawmill near the Cambodian-Thai border.

“In the area, there are many sawmills, and luxury timber – thnong, sokram, trach, tarav – was hidden there,” Sarith said. “The sawmill, where I saw May, covertly processes the luxury timber, but none of the authorities’ forces have launched a crackdown.”

Trapaing Brei Commune Police Chief Hing Thoeng admitted that in his commune alone Thimay operated at least 20 sawmills and woodworking shops.

“I do not know whether those sawmills are legal or illegal,” he said, before downplaying their scale. “But those sawmills operate on a family scale only.”

Confronted with reports of Thimay’s return to the timber trade on Sunday, Anlong Veng district Forestry Administration chief Khun Bunheng said he would send his men to check on the sawmills and would “take legal measures without exception”.

“It is the complicated area, but on Monday, the mobilised official group of the Forestry Administration will go there to investigate and intercept those crimes,” he said.

Reached again on Monday, Bunheng said he was still waiting for his men to report back, before asking a reporter to remind him where the sawmills might be located.

Calls to a number for Thimay provided by authorities went unanswered yesterday.

The man responsible for arresting Thimay in Kampong Thom, the now-retired Deputy Provincial Police Chief Ke Khanara, expressed dissatisfaction with how the courts handled her trial given her reputation as a known timber trader.

“I know the presiding judge has discretion to decide … but Nguyen Thimay’s case made me feel very sorry,” he said, adding that given his retirement, “I have no power”.

Environmental activist Ouch Leng said in an email that Thimay has logged and processed rosewood and other timber for “many decades”, and slammed the justice system as “unfair” for releasing her.

“I worry that she would come back to make timber business again in Cambodia like [other] logging tycoons who were announced to [be] arrest[ed] … but they are still at large,” he said.

“If we have [a] weak court system like that this is the best opportunity for mafia to smuggle timber.”