Three senior Ratanakkiri provincial officials dogged in recent months by accusations of involvement in a massive illegal logging operation in the province’s Virachey National Park were removed from their positions on Monday, officials said.
Authorities did not give an official reason for the surprise removal of Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun, Provincial Police Chief Yoeung Baloung and Moeung Samoeun, commander of the Ratanakkiri military sub-region.
The three were questioned in court in December over the 2004 Dragon’s Tail logging operation, in which approximately 500 truckloads of trees worth an estimated $15 million were logged and transported out of the country to Vietnam through Laos.
None of the men have been charged with any crime, and Kham Khoeun, following his December court appearance, denied any involvement in the scandal, saying he had been the target of malicious allegations for blowing the whistle on the Dragon’s Tail operation. Neither Yoeung Baloung nor Moeung Samoeun have been available for comment regarding their December court appearances.
The officials were removed on Monday at a ceremony in the provincial capital, Banlung, which was presided over by Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha, CPP parliamentarian Bou Thang and CPP senator Soeuy Keo.
At the ceremony, a visiting official read out a royal decree that King Norodom Sihamoni had signed on Friday approving Kham Khoeun’s removal.
An official also read an order signed by co-Interior Ministers Sar Kheng and Prince Norodom Sirivudh on Monday approving Yoeung Baloung’s removal, and an order signed by co-Defense Ministers Tea Banh and Nhiek Bun Chhay on Friday approving Moeung Samoeun’s removal.
Provincial Deputy Governor Muong Poy replaced Kham Khoeun, while Provincial Deputy Police Chief Ray Rai takes over from Yoeung Baloung, according to a statement released by the government.
Both men will be transferred to posts at the Interior Ministry’s National Police headquarters in Phnom Penh, the statement read.
Mong Khem, deputy commander of the Ratanakkiri military sub-region, will replace Moeung Samoeun, who will be posted to the RCAF Military Region 1 base in Kompong Cham province, the statement added.
In a somber speech to about 100 people who attended the ceremony at the provincial offices in Banlung, Kham Khoeun said he would miss Ratanakkiri, where his career spanned stints as a district governor, provincial police chief and finally provincial governor.
“I had struggled from riding an old bicycle to work until I have a concrete house and a Land Cruiser,” he said, adding that the decision to remove him was “political business.”
Prum Sokha told the newly-appointed officials that removing and replacing staff was common for those working inside the government system, and urged them to keep working according to government principles.
Kham Khoeun and Muong Poy refused to comment when contacted by telephone later on Monday. Yoeung Baloung, Moeung Samoeun and Prum Sokha could not be reached for comment.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Chiv Keng said he was unaware of the senior officials’ removal, and refused to comment on how the investigation into the logging operation was proceeding.
The logging operation was discovered during a scheduled monitoring flight over Virachey National Park in the Dragon’s Tail on May 12, 2004, that included World Bank and Environment Ministry officials.
The case was filed with the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court in November 2004, but court officials there said in September that they were unable to act because high-ranking officials, who they declined to name, were implicated.
The case was moved to Phnom Penh Municipal Court last year and was originally investigated by Judge Kim Sophorn until he was removed from his position in October for allegedly, in previous cases, altering charges against suspects without following the proper procedures.
In a report Kim Sophorn wrote before his removal, the judge alleged that Kham Khoeun and Yoeung Baloung knew of the massive logging operation and may have been involved.
Lawyers for the Environment Ministry have repeatedly demanded that the municipal court investigate and file charges against all government officials involved in the operation, regardless of rank.
So far one low-ranking former park ranger and the chief of the border police post where the logs crossed the border to Laos have been charged in the case; they are currently in prison. Arrest warrants for several other high ranking officials, including border police officers and the national park’s former director, have been issued, but the officials remain at large.
Environment Ministry Secretary of State Yin Kim Sean refused to comment on the removal of the three officials.