Powerful business tycoon Kong Kroeng was detained on Thursday after being questioned by authorities in eastern Cambodia’s Kratie province over his alleged involvement in an illicit timber operation, according to the National Military Police.
Kong Kroeng, a colonel in the military who owns the Mat Naseat timber-processing facility in Kratie’s Snuol district, was questioned at the Kratie provincial military police headquarters by officers from the National Committee for Forest Crime Prevention (NCFCP) investigating claims that he had overseen large-scale illegal logging in Kratie and neighboring Mondulkiri province.
Local media has also reported that Kong Kroeng was responsible for the smuggling of forest products across the border into Vietnam through Kratie.
Eng Hy, a spokesperson for the National Military Police, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Kong Kroeng and his son-in-law were both placed under provisional detention at the military police headquarters, pending a decision of whether authorities will pursue charges against them.
“According the law, the suspects can be detained for up to 48 hours before they are charged and sent to the court [or released],” he said.
According to Eng Hy, authorities are also searching for another person or persons suspected of working as associates of Kong Kroeng, but did not provide any further details, saying that the case is still under investigation.
“Any public disclosure about suspects could compromise our investigation,” he said.
Thursday’s questioning came after General Sao Sokha, the commander of the National Military Police and head of the NCFCP, led teams last week to investigate companies that had been granted Economic Land Concessions in Tboung Khmum, Kratie, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri, and Ratanakiri provinces.
The teams inspected at least nine warehouses owned by Kong Kroeng, but did not make any arrests at the time.
According to a report by the Khmer Times, the inspections were part of an investigation into companies suspected of having links to the operations of timber tycoon Soeng Sam Ol, who was arrested in Mondulkiri on July 9 and charged with illegal logging three days later.
At least 20 other people have been summoned for questioning since Soeng Sam Ol’s arrest, including provincial forestry administration officials, the Times said, while a total of 15 people have been charged in connection with the tycoon.
On Thursday, Pen Bonnar, a senior official with local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that Kong Kroeng may have committed three crimes, including the purchasing and cross-border transfer of illegal timber, bribery, and the illegal opening of a checkpoint in Kratie at the Cambodia-Vietnam border to facilitate illegal logging activities.
“Based on the crimes he may have committed, he could be jailed for up to 15 years,” he said.
“The authorities will have to investigate further to determine which associates and officials may also be involved.”
Environmental groups have long accused Kong Kroeng of acquiring his wealth at the expense of Cambodia’s natural resources and say the business owner has regularly spent several thousands of U.S. dollars each month over the past several years bribing authorities at all levels of the government to help carry out the illegal activities that fund his empire.
London-based Global Witness in July 2018 issued a report detailing four members of Cambodia’s business elite, who it said have profited hugely from “the system of grand corruption instituted during [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s reign.
Global Witness said that the tycoons had “propped up the Hun hegemony with political donations and military funding, and by courting investors from overseas,” and been “handsomely rewarded” for doing so—enjoying immunity from the law, the spoils of the government’s “state looting,” and the use of security forces to guard their operations and crack down on protests against them.
Two of the tycoons—senator Mong Reththy and Try Pheap—were linked to multi-million dollar timber smuggling operations that appear to have relied on the complicity of government officials.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.