Three Cambodian forest patrollers, including a staff member of a U.S.-based conservation group, have been killed by suspects believed to be members of Cambodia’s border forces in apparent retaliation for seizing equipment from illegal loggers, according to media reports.
A three-man team consisting of military police officer Sok Vathana, Environment Ministry ranger Toeurn Soknay, and Thol Khna—a local worker for New York-based NGO Wildlife Conservation Society—were attacked late on Tuesday after leaving the Keo Siema Wildlife Conservation Sanctuary in northeast Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province, media reports said, quoting officials.
The trio had earlier confiscated chainsaws and motorcycles from eight illegal loggers in the sanctuary near the Vietnamese border, they said, adding that police sent to investigate a report of stolen equipment suspected Cambodian border forces who backed the loggers were responsible for the killings.
Authorities have established a special committee to investigate the incident, officials said.
A staffer with a local NGO, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the three-man team had seized tools from a group of illegal Vietnamese loggers during a morning patrol of Keo Siema on Tuesday and were ambushed in retaliation that afternoon near the O’Rolear Police Post at the border.
The Associated Press cited a report from Mondulkiri police chief Ouk Samnang to National Police Chief Neth Savouen which identified border military officers Keut Vehar and Ngur and border police officer Phal Penh as the killers.
The Phnom Penh Post cited O’Reang Ov district police chief Bou Bun Chheat as saying officers are searching for Pheng Penh, a police officer in charge of the O’Rolear border post, and Keut Vehar, whom the paper identified as the head of the armed forces’ Regiment 103.
Seven bullet casings from a rifle were found at the scene of the shooting, according to the police chief.
The shooting is the latest incident in which environmental activists investigating forest crimes have been killed while carrying out their work.
In 2015, a forest ranger and a policeman were killed while looking into illegal logging in Preah Vihear province, in a case that led to the arrest of at least 10 people, including a soldier.
Prominent environmentalist Chut Wutty, of Cambodia’s Natural Resources Conservation Group, was investigating illicit logging operations in southern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province when he was fatally shot in 2012. He was allegedly gunned down by a military police officer who was also found dead at the scene.
Ouch Leng, chairman of the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, expressed sorrow over the reports of the killings, but said he was not surprised by the incident, noting that perpetrators of forest crimes are regularly provided protection by corrupt authorities.
“The killers are those who fight to protect the illegal loggers—they did it to silence those who report on the illicit activities,” he said.
Ouch Leng said that following the government’s dissolution of main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of general elections set for July, national attention has been focused on political tensions in the capital Phnom Penh, while “illegal loggers and criminals have a field day.”
“Members of the military are also involved in this deal—the logs and timber are being transported to Vietnam,” he said.
“My colleagues and I have been threatened with arrest or even death on several occasions as a result of our activities reporting on illegal logging.”
Cambodia has long endured the rampant smuggling of logs and timber—often with the complicity of local authorities—to neighbors such as China and Vietnam, where the wood is used to make high-end furniture.
The United Nations says Cambodia’s forest cover had shrunk to 46 percent in 2013 from 73 percent in 1990.
In May last year, a report by the U.K.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) said around 300,000 cubic meters of timber—including endangered rosewood—had been smuggled out of protected areas in Cambodia to Vietnam with the help of local authorities through some U.S. $13 million in bribes between November 2016 and March 2017.
The EIA separately published 2016-2017 sales invoices from Cambodian companies and Vietnamese import data in May showing that the total import value of Cambodian timber to Vietnam amounted to around U.S. $300 million since January 2016, despite Cambodia’s implementation of a ban on the trade that month.
At the time the report was published, Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense rejected its findings outright, while the Ministry of Environment—which is responsible for forest conservation—acknowledged that illegal deforestation is occurring in the country and pledged to investigate the EIA’s claims.
Just ten days later, Ministry of Environment spokesperson Sao Sopheap dismissed the report’s findings that Cambodian officials are often complicit in deforestation and smuggling, saying the EIA had failed to recognize the country’s efforts to combat the problems.
In 2002, Prime Minister Hun Sen vowed to cut his head off or resign if he could not protect the country’s forests, but little progress has been made on reducing illegal logging since then.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.