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Preah Vihear forest still holds murder secrets

A memorial for slain police officer Sap Yuos. Victoria Mørck Madsen
A memorial for slain police officer Sap Yuos. Victoria Mørck Madsen

Preah Vihear forest still holds murder secrets

More than a month since two anti-logging patrolmen were shot dead in Preah Vihear province, many arrests have been made but few answers have emerged. As time goes on, some worry that the killers might escape justice

Sap Yuos had patrolled the forests of northern Cambodia for years, but this time felt different. The policeman had been counselled to stay away from the forest by his fortune teller for a month after a bout of malaria and several fevers.

His seer had scribbled a warning on a piece of paper, which Yuos had stuffed in his trouser pocket. But with a family to provide for, being cursed seemed the least of his worries. He ignored the omen.

Yuos was fatally shot days later, on November 7, in a targeted assassination that also killed one of his colleagues, forestry officer Seang Narong, during an anti-illegal logging patrol in the Preah Roka forest.

The fortune teller’s note was returned to Yuos’ wife along with his body.

Mysterious murders

It was a pitch black night under the canopy when Phet Sophoan woke with a start to the sound of a gunshot. A second shot rang out and he reflexively rolled away from the noise. A third bullet struck him in the rear, sending him into shock.

Sophoan, a policeman with a border unit, had set up camp in the forest along with Yuos, Narong and a soldier from Intervention Brigade 9’s Battalion 391. The team had had a successful day, having confiscated seven chainsaws from illegal loggers.

Six loggers with alleged military ties and a soldier were arrested in the wake of the shooting, but nobody has been charged with the killings. The evergreen forest at Preah Roka is a major stronghold for the endangered koki hardwood tree, prized among furniture manufacturers and timber dealers.

The woodland, which is depended on by thousands of villagers, is frequently logged – much of the activity allegedly linked to the military. Near Preah Roka are villages funded by the military and corporate backers under the government’s social land concession (SLC) program.

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Border police Phet Sophoan says he has no idea who shot him and killed his colleagues. Victoria Mørck Madsen

Sophoan, aged 30, was fortunate to escape the attack alive. Resting under his stilt house last week, he stood up to show off his bandages.

When he is recovered, he will rejoin the patrols, organised by the Forestry Administration with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), he said.

“I love natural resources, so I’ll keep patrolling.”

Sophoan said the patrollers’ decision to sleep in the forest instead of heading back to base was “careless”. Through the darkness, he watched as Narong and Yuos were hit. He could see the silhouette of one assailant, but it was too dark to make out any identifiable features.

After the shooting ended, he lay still in silence for a moment before feeling his way through the camp. He took off his shirt to bandage his wound, then found his rifle.

While Narong’s body lay still – he had presumably died quickly – Yuos could be heard enduring a slow and painful end.

Kheam Chenda, the soldier, was unharmed in the attack.

“We talked about whether we should carry on [away from the forest] or go back to help the other two. We were afraid that we would be shot dead if we went back … I felt sorry for him [Yuos] but I couldn’t help him,” Sophoan said.

The pair walked through the forest for almost six hours to their patrol station, arriving about 8am. Chenda returned to collect their colleagues’ corpses hours later.

Military ties

Since the murder, Chenda has been questioned by both the police and the provincial court, but he has not been charged with any crime.

Sophoan said he believes Chenda’s rifle, which was missing when he returned to the scene, was used in the attack, but maintains that Chenda himself is innocent.

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While wounded, Sophoan swam through this stream. Victoria Mørck Madsen

“We patrolled together, and I have noticed that he is loyal. He’s a simple person, not a bad person,” he said.

But evidence linking Chenda’s military unit to the murders is hard to ignore.

Following the attack, Chan Loeung, a fellow Brigade 9 soldier, was arrested. He has since begun a 10-year sentence for an armed robbery conviction handed down in absentia in 2001, while investigations continue looking into his role in the killings.

Six of the loggers whose chainsaws had been confiscated on the day of the murders have also been detained. They have since been charged with illegal logging and are still being investigated over the double homicide.

Sophoan said he believed the aggrieved loggers were behind the attack. He later acknowledged that at least one of them, 42-year-old Sok Bun Thoeun, was known to be employed by the military.

On the day of the murders, “we confiscated chainsaws from Bun Thoeun and the other loggers at about 3pm. I’ve heard that he logged for the military – he was employed to log for a commander known as ‘Ra’,” Sophoan said.

“The loggers said they paid money to Ra at checkpoint 91 before entering our forest. When they arrived … the loggers told us they had contacted the soldiers and paid money” to be there.

A source close to the investigation said there was evidence that all six loggers were “employed by people connected to Battalion 391”.

A military source, who also declined to be named, said Leng Sara, an assistant to the chief of staff for Battalion 391, was known to facilitate logging in the area.

Under questioning, he said Bun Thoeun had confessed to working for Sara but denied any role in the murders. Numerous attempts to reach Sara were unsuccessful.

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Sophoan’s bullet wound. Victoria Mørck Madsen

Maintaining innocence

Gathered around a large table crafted out of an endangered koki tree, Bun Thoeun’s family wept and called for his release.

“My father has nothing to do with the murder,” cried Bun Thoeun’s 21-year-old daughter, Nheb Srey Deung.

The family claimed not to know that their father was working for a military official. They said he paid $100 for permission to log for 10 days, but had never disclosed who received the money.

They added that all timber felled by the group was sold to “Sawmill 91,” which sources say has close links to the military but is not owned by Sara.

Tun Virith, the father of another logger arrested since the attack and a close friend of Bun Thoeun, said his son, Rith Sokchea, had been paid about $7.50 a day to log the wood, which was then sold on for $150 per cubic metre.

The group, he added, was required to pay small bribes of about $2.50 to the military for each truck of timber taken out of the forest. But, like Bun Thoeun’s family, Virith said he did not know the extent of the military’s involvement in his son’s activities.

Both families said that on the day of the arrest, Bun Thoeun received a call from a senior Brigade 9 officer asking to meet. When he arrived, he was arrested. The rest of the loggers were then summonsed.

Loeung, the soldier imprisoned in the wake of the attack, was also summonsed by his commander before being arrested by police.

At his house last week, which is just minutes away from the home of the loggers, his wife, Rem Chien, insisted that he had been framed.

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A sawmill found behind military housing. Victoria Mørck Madsen

On the night of the shooting, Chien claims her husband was at home. “We have witnesses for this. All of the villagers here have agreed to be witnesses if necessary,” she said.

Chien said her husband’s imprisonment over the armed robbery conviction was “an injustice” as she produced a letter from the provincial court, signed in 2004, calling for the arrest warrant against him to be rescinded.

More recently, Loeung’s son-in-law was sent to pre-trial detention for “illegal logging” after the pair were caught felling trees they claimed to be using to build a new home. Loeung had dodged arrest by fleeing the scene.

During the interview, a uniformed Brigade 9 soldier showed up, repeating Chien’s claims that her husband was innocent. The soldier, Seang Yon Sao, said Loeung never ventured into the forest but did spend considerable time at a sawmill that abuts their military SLC.

Chien accompanied reporters to the sawmill, where military fatigues were draped over pieces of wood. The reporters were quickly asked to leave.

Chien said her husband was being used as a scapegoat for the murders.

Destructive power

The military is well known in Preah Vihear to be responsible for logging and poaching in protected areas, according to multiple sources.

But while sawmills, tree stumps and the open trade of endangered timber are ubiquitous around military zones in the province, few dare to speak out.

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Tan Ley, wife of slain patrolman Sap Yuos.Victoria Mørck Madsen

A source close to the investigation who declined to be named described military logging in Preah Vihear as a “huge problem” that was difficult to investigate because of a widespread fear of reprisals.

“Military involvement in illegal hunting and logging is the elephant in the room that no one is prepared to address,” the source said.

The source added that reports from the Forestry Administration “show there is lots of illegal activity around military sites. In addition, social land concessions for the military have eaten large chunks out of protected areas like the Kulen Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary.”

Intervention Division 3, which encompasses Brigade 9, is headquartered within the sanctuary.

Its commander, Lieutenant General Srey Douk, who was at the forefront of the battle with Thai forces over the Preah Vihear Temple in 2008, sits on the Central Committee of the Cambodian People’s Party.

He declined to comment for this story. Sophoan said his group regularly busted loggers and poachers working for the military.

But the Forestry Administration, which organises the patrols, was reluctant to single out the army.

“I cannot say that soldiers are engaged with logging, but [I can say] many responsible officials are involved in forest crimes,” said Tan Setha, deputy project manager of Preah Vihear Protected Forest.

“Responsible officers are connected with forest crimes on a big scale … many use simple people to log for them.”

Others said the military was not the only powerful body responsible for forest crimes in the area, and that competition over the illegal trade had led to noticeable tensions.

Logging wars

Lor Chan, the Preah Vihear-based coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said conflicts over forest crimes erupt predominantly in “military zones” when patrollers attempt to extort money from those working for RCAF officials.

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A logging truck found behind military housing. Victoria Mørck Madsen

A number of sources claimed that the forest patrol group had also been receiving bribes from the military loggers in return for turning a blind eye to their crimes.

Chorn Sokha, an officer with Brigade 9 involved in the military investigation into the murders, speculated that the officers had chosen to sleep in the forest because they had hoped to exchange the confiscated chainsaws for cash.

“It was not necessary for them to sleep there. They didn’t even need to rush to take the chainsaws to their station as they had confiscated [the equipment] at 3pm,” he said. “No photos of the crime were taken. They just waited to see whether the loggers would bring money to redeem the chainsaws or not.”

Chan of Adhoc said it was common for patrols to “make money from the loggers”.

“When disputes occur, it’s normally because there’s a conflict of interest,” he said.

But the Forestry Administration defended the integrity of its officers, arguing that they were killed because they were not on the take.

“If they were involved with bribery, they would not have been shot and killed like that. If we took their money, we’d be fine,” said Setha.

He declined to comment on issues with the Forestry Administration using patrollers from military units known to be participating in illegal logging in the area.

A source close to the Forestry Administration said Narong, the fallen ranger, was widely considered a hard working and honest officer, There had never been any suggestion prior to his death that he had been involved in taking bribes.

“I suspect that his murderer was enraged with his work of arresting the loggers and took revenge on him,” said Yuos’ wife, Tan Ley. “I want whoever is behind it to be arrested and brought to justice.”

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