Top officials on Monday said the government would be auctioning off some of the 70,000 cubic meters of wood authorities have seized in recent months, backtracking on a recent pledge Hun Sen made to stop the sales.
The massive timber haul, enough to fill more than 2,000 standard 20-foot shipping containers, was seized by a special task force that Prime Minister Hun Sen formed in mid-January to go after illegal wood stocks in the eastern provinces.
For years, the government had been selling off seized wood in secretive deals that seemed to favor timber traders close to the prime minister and violated the Forestry Law by bypassing public auctions.
In a surprise move at the Education Ministry’s annual meeting in March, Mr. Hun Sen announced an immediate halt to the sales. He said all seized wood would from now on be put to use building schools, desks and whatever else the ministry needed.
“In the past, whenever we confiscated, we always found a bidder for exporting. But when they received the export rights, logging still occurred,” the prime minister said at the time.
“From this day on, all wood that is illegally felled and later seized will no longer be for sale,” he added. “Now stop…. From this day on, we will transfer all seized wood to use in the education sector.”
In the weeks that followed, officials appeared to be on board with the plan. Education Ministry spokesman Ros Salin said the ministry was busy making plans for new schools and teacher housing.
On Monday, however, National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha, the man Mr. Hun Sen put in charge of the special task force, said the wood they had seized in recent months was once again up for sale.
“I have heard that the government will put up the wood for bidding to earn money for the Ministry of Education,” Mr. Sokha said.
“I don’t know when the wood will be put to bid. I just know that the Ministry of Education is working with the relevant ministries and institutions, as well as the courts, to follow the decision of the government to earn money to serve the education sector.”
A local Khmer-language newspaper on Monday reported that Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, on a visit to inspect one of the seized piles of wood in Tbong Khmum province, also stated that at least some of the confiscated timber would be sold to raise money for the Education Ministry.
Mr. Chhin could not be reached for confirmation. Provincial governor Prach Chan, who accompanied him on the visit, declined to comment on what the deputy prime minister said.
Last week, the Education Ministry’s Mr. Salin went so far as to say that not all the seized wood would be put to building schools and desks. He said the best of the lot, including logs of Beng and rosewood, which can earn thousands of dollars per square meter, would be spared. But he declined to say what their fate would be.
On Monday, Mr. Salin said he was not aware of what Mr. Chhin reportedly said in Tbong Khmum. He said another ad hoc committee headed by Mr. Chhin—which Mr. Sokha also sat on—would decide the fate of the seized wood but had yet to make a decision, so far as he was aware.
“We have the committee to manage the timber,” he said. “We do not have any progress yet because we wait for the decision of the committee.”
He declined to say whether selling the wood was even an option.
Neither Mr. Sokha nor Mr. Chhin explained how the sale would happen, and there is no evidence that the sales have ever worked the way they were supposed to.
According to the Forestry Law, all timber seized by the state must be sold at a public auction. But there is no sign that a public auction of seized wood has ever taken place. Environmental groups that work with the government say they have never seen or heard of a single auction ever happening, and the government has failed to present any evidence to the contrary.
What the government has produced are documents signing over thousands of cubic meters of seized wood to Try Pheap, a timber magnate and adviser to Mr. Hun Sen, at bargain rates on multiple occasions. The man who for years headed the special committee in charge of those sales was Eang Sophalleth, one of Mr. Hun Sen’s personal assistants.
In 2014, the Council of Ministers made Mr. Pheap’s special status official, ordering the ministries of agriculture and environment to give the timber magnate the first rights to buy up as much of the seized wood as he liked—at no set price.
In January, soon after Mr. Sokha’s new task force went to work, the man who signed that order, Council of Ministers Secretary of State Bun Uy, said it was still in force. He said he had no idea how the order squared with the Forestry Law, which requires a public auction, because such legal concerns were “out of my role.”
Besides the legal breaches and apparent corruption, environmental groups say the sales have only helped to fuel Cambodia’s rampant illegal logging trade by giving the government another revenue stream and well-connected timber traders a cheap supply, offering no incentive to stop the cycle.