Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has set up a committee to stop the smuggling of timber across the border to Vietnam and warned that he will remove the governor of the southeastern province that serves as the main gateway for the logs if he and a local district official fail to curb the illegal activities.
Hun Sen on Friday appointed National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha to head up the 10-member committee called the Coalition Committee for Forest Crime Prevention to crack down on illegal timber smuggling into neighboring Vietnam.
Hun Sen also ordered the closure of Cambodia-Vietnam border checkpoints to prevent timber transports, according to information on the Facebook page of Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.
So far, Sao Sokha has ordered technical teams to find the perpetrators of forest crimes in northeastern Cambodia’s Kratie province after a group of more than 100 authorities from different agencies raided a Chinese company’s timber warehouse this week and found more than 3,000 cubic meters (106,000 cubic feet) of wood.
Police also found three illegal logging sites in Mondulkiri province’s Keo Seima district, where thousands of cubic meters of timber were piled high, as well as sites in Kratie province’s Sambor district, The Phnom Penh Post reported Tuesday.
Military police officials have been deployed to major border crossings and checkpoints in Mondulkiri, Ratanakiri, Kratie and Prey Veng provinces, to stop the movement of both legal and illegal timber, the report said.
The prime minister also said he would dismiss Prach Chan, governor of Tbong Khmum province in southeastern Cambodia, if he and Memot district governor Cheng Bunara did not take action to prevent the illegal transport of Cambodian timber to Vietnam.
Hun Sen specifically singled out two wealthy businessmen — Soeng Sam Ol and Lim Bunna — as the reported leaders of timber smuggling rings in Tbong Khmum’s Memot district, The Phnom Penh Post reported, citing government spokesman Phay Siphan. The two have smuggled wood to Vietnam without government permission, he said.
Prach Chan, a member of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said Friday that Hun Sen’s order to close the border crossings through which logs are illegally transported to Vietnam was the correct action to take and that provincial authorities would step up their enforcement of measures to prevent of forest crimes.
“Now, it is his order,” Prach Chan said. “He will set up a committee to take strict measures [against forest crimes], and I am prepared to implement them effectively.”
Prach Chan used to receive praise from Hun Sen for his work and leadership when he was governor of northwestern Cambodia’s Battambang province.
The government had appointed him first governor of newly formed Tbong Khmum province in January 2014, although he did not take up his position until later that year.
Ouch Leng, director of Cambodia’s Human Rights Task Force, however, expressed pessimism about the measures, pointing out that although Hun Sen had issued similar threats and warnings before, the destruction of Cambodia’s forests has continued.
“It is a kind of show, so that he can collect the votes,” Ouch Leng said. “[It gives the perception that] he is making efforts to protect the forest, when in fact the results that we have received have not reflected what he has said.”
Chhun Vutha, chief of Memot commune, expressed support for the government’s measures, but said he had little faith in Hun Sen, who used to promise to cut off his own head if he could not bring forest crimes under control.
Residents of Memot district and civil society activists say although the crackdown on those who operate warehouses and illegally transport timber in Tbong Khmum province is a positive measure, they are concerned about a lack of transparency.
Some people in the district’s Dar commune have requested that authorities, including those on the newly created committee, share details about their operations with the public to prevent collusion between authorities and smugglers.
One resident, Thoeun Vutha, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the government’s measures would only be effective in the short term and that timber trafficking would continue after the crackdown grows quiet.
The committee conducting the inspection operations can cover them for only a short period of time because the transparency [of their actions] will not outpace the conspiracy practices of authorities at any level,” he said.
RFA contacted Prach Chan for comment on Tuesday, but he said he was busy in a meeting.
Neang Suvath, provincial coordinator for the domestic rights group Adhoc, said people cannot trust the government officials involved in implementing the crackdown unless they are completely honest about their operations.
Authorities should publicly reveal the identities of timber traders and smugglers and show reports indicating the locations of warehouses they raid, he said.
Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, largely due to illegal logging. A report issued last year by the U.K. environmental rights group Global Witness found that government and military officials collude with businessmen to illegally cut and transport Cambodian timber mainly to China.
Reported by Sokheng Saut for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Kuhn. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.