Auctions Called Off for Most of Seized Timber

The government has given up on trying to auction off the majority of 71,000 cubic meters of illegally logged timber seized by authorities earlier this year amid a persistent lack of interest from potential buyers.

Soung Mengkea, an undersecretary of state at the Ministry of Finance, said the government would instead try to find buyers willing to negotiate a price with the state directly.

After announcing plans to hand the seized timber over to the Education Ministry for the building of schools, teacher housing and the like, Prime Minister Hun Sen later said the ministry lacked the means to haul the wood away and that it would instead be auctioned off—at a combined initial asking price of $14 million.

A series of scheduled and rescheduled auctions have all been canceled over the past month, however, due to a dearth of applicants. Some of the auctions failed to attract the requisite three bidders; others failed to attract any.

“We made announcements to find people to apply to bid for the wood,” Mr. Mengkea said on Thursday, “but we got no applicants.”

A July 25 statement from the Finance Ministry, published by local media on Thursday, announced plans to instead find potential buyers willing to “discuss” a price for lots in the provinces of Kratie, Ratanakkiri and Tbong Khmum, as well as three sites in Mondolkiri, with the discussions planned for September 5 to 9.

Together, more than 50,000 cubic meters of the seized timber will no longer be put to bid.

Mr. Mengkea said the ministry had found the requisite three bidders to go ahead with an auction in Stung Treng province—a date has yet to be set—and that it had one applicant each for four other lots in Mondolkiri, raising hopes that they might still attract more.

“We have issued another announcement to find applicants,” he said of the four Mondolkiri lots. “We will discuss a price if we get only one applicant for each. But if we get two more applicants, we will put the wood to bid.”

Mr. Mengkea said he did not know why it was proving so difficult to find buyers.

One prominent timber trader in Mondolkiri, Soeng Sam Ol, said last week that he was not taking part in the auctions because he worried the wood might be in bad condition after spending months in the open. Mr. Sam Ol, accused by locals of illegal logging himself, said he also feared that the government might try to make the accusations—which he denies—stick if he tried to participate.

Most of the seized wood the government has sold off in the past few years has gone to timber magnate Try Pheap, an assistant to the prime minister, with no evidence of the public auctions required by law. Like Mr. Sam Ol, Mr. Pheap has been dogged by illegal logging allegations, which he also denies, and similarly bowed out of the latest sales.

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