The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on December 19 charged two senior police officials on several criminal counts for their involvement in the destruction of the Tonle Sap Lake’s flooded forests in Kampong Chhnang province’s Kampong Leng district.

Brigadier General Sum Socheat was charged with four criminal counts while provincial intervention police chief Colonel Keo Narun was charged on three counts.

The charges came after the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) arrested the duo on December 16. ACU said Socheat, 51, had engaged in the occupation and sale of state flooded forestland in four different parts of the district.

ACU said they took legal action against Narun, 59, over the occupation of state flooded forest land in three other areas in the district.

According to a letter from Investigating Judge Koy Sao, who is also deputy president of the municipal court, Socheat is charged with destruction of state property and embezzlement under Article 608 of the Criminal Code.

He is also charged with clearing protected forest and flooded forestland for private ownership under Article 98 of the fisheries law; public corruption and money laundering under articles 32 and 38 of the anti-corruption law as well as articles 3 and 29 of the Law on Anti-Money Laundering and Combating the Financing of Terrorism.

The crimes were allegedly committed in Region 3 of the lake in two villages of Kampong Leng district’s Chranouk commune from 2017 to 2021.

Narun was similarly charged with destruction of state property and embezzlement and clearing flooded forestland for private ownership as well as failure to declare assets, all in the same commune and in the same period as Socheat’s alleged crimes.

Their arrest came after inter-ministerial joint forces enforced Prime Minister Hun Sen’s order to crack down on encroachment on Region 3 of the lake, which was to be preserved as fish spawning grounds.

ACU head Om Yentieng declined to comment when asked whether his unit was taking legal action against other people involved in clearing flooded forestland, which authorities have said consists of a vast area spanning tens of thousands of hectares – much larger in scope than what the two are accused of destroying.

Sok Touch, president of the Royal Academy of Cambodia who first sounded the alarm, had researched the flooded forest areas around the lake and reported back to Hun Sen last week that the encroachment was widespread.

“The walls of Angkor Wat have fish carved into them. Why? Because of the huge amount of fish in the Tonle Sap Lake that have always sustained the population here and are now under threat because the area around the lake the fish use for spawning has been occupied for personal use.

“In Kampong Thom province alone, up to 100,000ha have been cleared, but authorities so far have mentioned just 3,000ha,” Touch said.

In the meantime, officials from the Tonle Sap Authority and the Water Resources and Meteorology departments in the six provinces around the lake have inspected 659 boundary posts demarcating Region 3, which the government had preserved for fish spawning.

The Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology said on December 17 that the 659 posts inspected were out of a total of 802, or 82.2 per cent of them. The posts were planted around the lake to prevent encroachment.

Of the 659 posts, 208 that were still standing were painted to make them more visible, 202 inclined posts were painted after they were straightened and 208 were underwater. The ministry also planted 41 new posts. The posts which are currently located in the water will be inspected when the water recedes.

The ministry said they have also placed informational banners at 10 different locations. They are among a total of 52 banners that will be placed around the lake.

Officials in the six provinces – Pursat, Battambang, Kampong Chhnang, Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap and Kampong Thom – and relevant national authorities are currently reforesting the area with different kinds of trees that are native there.

In Kampong Thom province alone, nearly 40,000 saplings have been planted in Region 3 in Srayov commune of Stung Sen town. In Battambang, authorities have been planting palm, bamboo and raing (Barringtonia acutangula) trees.