Cambodia is a dangerous country for environmental activists like Leng Ouch, who won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2016 and the Asia Game Changer Award on Nov. 1 in New York. He continues to expose illegal logging and corruption in Cambodia. He was interviewed by RFA Khmer Service reporter Tin Zakariya by phone on Nov. 2
RFA: Why were you given this latest award?
Leng Ouch: I won this prize because of my work in protecting the environment. I have mobilized people to help protect Cambodia's forests and have advocated for an end to illegal logging and the trade in smuggled timber. I have also made public statements hoping to ease tensions between Cambodia and the U.S. I have asked the U.S. to relieve the debt Cambodia owes, and I have also called on European countries to freeze their timber trade with countries like China and Vietnam, because these countries engage in illegal logging in Cambodia and Laos. Vietnam plays a significant role in illegal logging in Cambodia, because it sells the logs and timber it gets to European countries. I have also appealed to the world to stop buying wood from China and Vietnam.
RFA: You are recognized as an activist who has risked his life fighting to protect Prey Long forest, and have even lost a leg because of your activities. Aren't you afraid of being killed like the activist Chut Wutty, who was killed while advocating for the protection of the forests and environment?
Leng Ouch: Yes, I am afraid. However, I have to take risks to make change. If I don't take these risks, illegal loggers will be free to continue destroy our forests. I know that life may be short for me. A year after I won the Goldman Environmental Prize, I lost my left leg. But no matter how short my life may be, I will continue to fight to protect the environment. I am not afraid to expose and denounce tycoons who engage in illegal logging and deforestation.
RFA: Who are the tycoons who engage in illegal logging? Why are they not affected by [prime minister] Hun Sen’s promise to curb illegal logging?
Leng Ouch: Ty Pheap is one of them. He is backed by several government officials, including military personnel and high-ranking police officials. Another is An Marady, who owns sawmills across the country. Ly Yong Phat also owns sawmills. Kith Meng is also involved in illegal logging in the Lower Sesan 2 dam reservoir. There are also a lot more. There are 3,000 to 4,000 people who are involved in illegal logging. They are protected by corrupt officials, and whistleblowers are put at risk and put on a blacklist for persecution. I was arrested and threatened with death on several occasions but I have gotten used to this kind of intimidation.
RFA: Several of the people you have named are members of the ruling party [CPP] and are Hun Sen’s close associates. Is this the reason those tycoons remain at large?
Leng Ouch: It is easy to crack down on crime, but unfortunately the government has no will to do it. That’s because the proceeds from illegal logging are put into political campaigns for the ruling party. Before each election, tycoons will collect proceeds from their crimes to support the ruling party’s political campaigns and the Cambodian Red Cross.This is a fact.
RFA: How effective Is the Cambodian government’s effort to stop illegal logging, as announced by Hun Sen?
Leng Ouch: It's not. And that’s because Hun Sen’s relatives are involved in forest crimes. And several tycoons are ruling party members. There is no way they can be prosecuted as long as they are protected by the ruling elite.
RFA: Where does most illegal logging take place?
Leng Ouch: This happens in the border areas. At least 200-300 truckloads of logs are transported from Cambodia into Vietnam every day.
RFA: If illegal logging continues at this rate, what will happen to the forests in the future?
Leng Ouch: The government’s pledge to curb illegal logging exists only on paper. In reality they have not been able to stop it. People have no faith that the government will protect the forests and the environment. We have to rely heavily on each member of the community to stand up and protect our forests and environment. We have to take this matter into our own hands.