Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has ordered the head of a recently established anti-logging committee to get tough on the country’s illegal timber trade by blasting smugglers with rockets fired from helicopters.
But local rights groups and the opposition said Hun Sen’s order failed to address the root causes of illegal logging in Cambodia and urged him to take action against high-ranking officials and businessmen who are profiting from the trade.
Speaking at the inauguration of the new headquarters of the Ministry of Environment on Thursday, the prime minister called on National Military Police Commander and head of the 10-member Coalition Committee for Forest Crime Prevention Sao Sokha to use deadly force against timber traffickers.
“We acknowledge that the loggers must be punished and must be cracked down on,” he said, in response to a string of reports by local media of increased timber smuggling.
“I provided two helicopters to Sao Sokha, who has not fired a single shot so far. I [now] permit firing. If [illegal loggers] are defiant, then just fire rockets at them from above.”
Speaking in response to Hun Sen’s order, Coalition Committee for Forest Crime Prevention spokesman Eng Hy told the The Phnom Penh Post that there had been no reason to fire rockets, as no loggers had shot at authorities during the latest crackdowns.
He added that forestry crimes had decreased since Hun Sen established the committee at the end of January.
Hun Sen has promised to crack down on forestry crimes in the past and famously pledged to “cut off my own head” if he was unable to resolve the problem.
But in a 2015 report, local NGO Forest Trends found that an average of 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of forests were being destroyed annually in Cambodia due to government granted land concessions.
While illegal logging continues, forest activists have faced harassment and jailing by authorities, and in some cases have even been killed while carrying out investigations into the trade.
Neang Sovath, a provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen’s efforts to rein in the illegal harvest of timber had so far yielded only temporary results.
Instead, Hun Sen should take action against a number of high-ranking officials and businessmen who are trading in timber, he said.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen has made a number of recommendations, but none are sustainable—the measures only have temporary effect,” Neang Sovath said.
“[Because of this], the loggers just cut and cut and cut—whatever they want. There have been lots of posts on Facebook which show [illegal logging] activities, but such posts are [largely] ignored.”
Yem Ponhearith, a lawmaker representing Prey Veng province for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA that Hun Sen had operated outside of his authority by ordering the Coalition Committee to fire rockets at illegal loggers.
He said that any crackdown should only come after a thorough investigation into the masterminds behind the trade and must be handled within the framework of the law.
“We can see that there is still ongoing deforestation in the country, but any measures taken must involve legal methods,” he said.
Last month, Hun Sen established the Coalition Committee for Forest Crime Prevention to stop the smuggling of timber across the border to Vietnam and warned that he will remove the governor of Tbong Khmum province—which serves as the main gateway for the logs—if he fails to curb the illegal activities.
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, saying they had been smuggling wood to Vietnam.
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 RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.