Authorities in Tbong Khmum province seized two trucks that were about to break the government’s ban on timber exports to Vietnam by carting wood across the border for a company owned by business mogul Kith Meng.
Customs officials and provincial military police stopped the loaded trucks about 2 to 3 km from the Tonle Cham border checkpoint on Friday on suspicion that they were hauling timber without a license, Eng Hy, spokesman for the National Military Police, said on Sunday.
Lieutenant General Hy said Ang and Associates Lawyers, a subsidiary of Mr. Meng’s Royal Group, gave customs officials government-issued permits the next day for the right to transport the wood from Stung Treng province, where the company is clearing a reservoir for the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam, a joint venture between the Royal Group and China’s Hydrolancang International Energy.
The permits allow Ang and Associates to move two loads of timber out of the reservoir, each measuring just under 18 cubic meters of first-grade wood. They do not give the company permission to take any of it to Vietnam, which has been officially off-limits to Cambodian timber exports since January last year.
“Provincial military police reported to us that the two trucks were taking the wood to Vietnam,” Lt. Gen. Hy said. “I am not sure if the trucks were transporting wood illegally because our officials are working on comparing the documents with the wood on the two trucks.”
Neither the drivers nor the company representative who brought officials the transport permits were detained by the police.
Contacted on Sunday by telephone, Mr. Meng declined to speak with a reporter. Ang and Associates could not be reached.
Chan Tara, an assistant to Tbong Khmum Provincial Court prosecutor Heang Sopheak, said the truck drivers told officials where they were headed once they were stopped.
“The prosecutor ordered provincial military police to stop the trucks because they were preparing to cross the border,” he said. “The drivers told customs officials that they were transporting wood for Ang and Associates and that the wood was going to Vietnam.”
Though the government has hailed its timber export ban as a success, Vietnamese customs data obtained by the U.S. NGO Forestry Trends indicate that large volumes of timber have continued to pour across the border. According to the organization’s data, Cambodia exported more than 310,000 cubic meters of logs and sawn wood to Vietnam last year worth a combined $181 million.
Mr. Meng’s companies have also been dogged by allegations from NGOs and residents in Stung Treng of using the dam reservoir to launder wood being logged illegally outside the permitted area.
Mr. Meng is believed to be one of the richest men in Cambodia. He has accompanied Prime Minister Hun Sen on trips abroad to promote the country as an ideal investment opportunity.