At the head of a sleek table below two gold-rimmed photographs of logging tycoon Try Pheap posing with Prime Minister Hun Sen, two carved Chinese serpents encircle a throne carved from beng – one of Cambodia’s most expensive and rare timbers.
The ornate throne awaits Pheap’s visit to his latest project: a “museum” displaying the end product of the Hun Sen adviser’s timber businesses, which the Post was granted unprecedented access to on Tuesday.
As visitors enter the museum, directly in front of them are two winding staircases, each step a weighty slab of luxury wood that Chey Sith, an amiable company man who is one of nine deputy general managers working for Pheap, says was taken from the Stung Atay dam reservoir in the Cardamom Mountains.
Artistic impressions of the museum, which is due to be completed next year, depict a fountain in the entrance car park, which lies just off National Road 4, in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district.
“My Okhna Try Pheap loves Khmer culture, so he is constructing this building made of wood for Khmer youngsters to visit, so that Khmer culture can reach immortality,” Sith says, using an honourific title bestowed on the tycoon – casually referred to by his employees as “The Boss” – in exchange for a $100,000 donation to the government in 2004.
“Our master plan to build this [museum] allocates about $5.6 million [for construction],” Sith continues. “We are investing in this building not for profit, but to let Khmers know more about Khmer history.… No one can build a building like this, except my Okhna Try Pheap.”
“The Boss” also hopes to attract tourists, mostly wealthy visitors from East Asian and ASEAN countries, after the facility opens its doors to the public next year. The main goal, his employees say, will be to showcase Cambodians’ artistry – and, purely as an afterthought, to make a tidy profit from selling the “artefacts”.
Pheap has been dogged by allegations that his conglomerate, the Try Pheap Group, is used as a front for illegal logging in Cambodia’s at-risk forests.
Seated in Pheap’s “meeting room” in the museum, Sith was at pains to dismiss such “rumours”.
“We cannot burn all of the wood, so we have to transform it into furniture. If we burn it, it means that we burn our money,” Sith says. “All of the wood you see here we took from Pursat province, in the place that our company got the license for clearing the reservoir of the Stung Atay dam.”
A leaked report obtained last month showed that government agencies had recorded an estimated $227 million of profits from rosewood smuggled by Pheap’s MDS Import Export Co from areas surrounding the Atay hydropower dam reservoir zone in the Cardamom Mountains between 2009 and 2012.
MDS has firmly denied the allegations of corruption raised in the report, which is based on local export figures collected by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Administration.
“I don’t know where you got that report from,” Sith adds. Several MDS employees – some wearing shirts and ties and others, more casually dressed, heavyset and serious-looking – nod gently in agreement.
Before asking Post reporters to pose for photographs with Try Pheap Group employees – “The Boss will want to see this” – Sith denied MDS had plundered the Cardamoms’ rosewood stocks, as the report suggests.
The firm, he says, speaking in a more intense tone and letting his company smile drop, “does not make anywhere near that kind of money”.
“We live in a world in which companies cut down the trees, so don’t just blame it on Khmers. I feel regret, and it is painful to watch those companies that get economic land concessions like us … but they do not sell the wood like we do. We paid tax already, so we will not burn the wood, we will use it as best we can,” he adds. “If we conserve the trees, our people will have no food to eat and no jobs.”
Sith says MDS paid its fair share of tax on its timber exports from the Atay dam – where logging finished in March – at “a rate of 5 per cent and 1 per cent”.
He quotes a figure from the company’s final assessment of the Atay logging concession of $18.6 million in taxes paid to the government, which would put the total income from the Atay logging over four years at an estimated $310 million.
According to the leaked February report, however, there was no more than $15.1 million worth of rosewood in the reservoir zone in the first place.
Behind the museum building, which will double as a showroom for prospective clients, are two large warehouses and a vast carpentry facility. Inside the warehouse, ornately panelled ceiling tiles are fashioned from beng, koki, kranoung, thnong and other threatened hardwood species.
Scores of sturdy wooden chairs and tables fill one side of the depot, while faux antique ox carts encrusted with silver in the Kampong Saom style sit at the other. Perched on the top of what was once a rosewood root system, a portly carved Buddha grins silently at his visitors.
At one end of the warehouse, a door opens into an expansive workshop where villagers noisily offload piles of plywood into stacks on the floor.
“It’s not all luxury wood,” Sith says. “We deal in all kinds of timber.” At the far end of the workshop, three “steam rooms” are loaded with planks and logs to be dried for cutting or carving.
Dark red wood chippings form piles around machinery and the air is thick with sawdust. “We do this just to provide jobs for Khmer people,” Sith says, handing out protective masks.
The head of the workshop says that “just one machine here costs almost $1 million”.
“Most of them we buy from France,” the foreman adds.
At the east of the 4.5-hectare site, agroindustrial products from Pheap’s economic land concessions will be displayed for visitors, including pepper and rubber products.
“We are hoping they are good,” says Sith, “because we want to export to Europe and the US.”