Buried Logs Uncovered on Wood Trader’s Property

Authorities in Tbong Khmum province on Sunday confirmed finding a cache of valuable logs buried underground on property tied to a wealthy local timber trader, part of an ongoing search for illegal wood stocks across eastern Cambodia.

It follows news that as-yet-unknown arsonists set fire to several piles of valuable timber in neighboring Mondolkiri province in a possible bid to destroy evidence last month.

On Sunday, Tbong Khmum Provincial Court prosecutor Heang Sopheak said that 84 logs of first-grade Sokrom wood were unearthed in O’Reang-ou district on January 18.

Mr. Sopheak said the wood was found on property that a man known only as “Oknha Thai” had been using for his timber trading business “for a long time.”

Despite his position as an oknha—an official honorific approved by the king and secured with a $100,000 donation to the state—the prosecutor claimed not to know Mr. Thai’s full name. He also declined to say how they found the buried timber or why anyone would go to the trouble of burying 84 large logs if there was nothing to hide.

“I do not dare to conclude the wood in the ground is illegal because it is up to the experts of the Forestry Administration to find out if anything is wrong,” he said. “The armed forces are now guarding the wood and they don’t allow the owner to get inside.”

Forestry Administration officials in charge of the area could not be reached.

The news of the buried wood followed reports a week ago that several piles of timber stored on the Binh Phuoc 1 rubber plantation in Mondolkiri had mysteriously gone up in flames. Provincial deputy prosecutor Chea Sovantheth later put the number of logs damaged in the flames at 1,909.

Though authorities were quick to suspect arson, they have not put blame on the Vietnamese-owned rubber plantation on whose property the timber was stored and burned. The plantation’s manager denies any involvement.

The spokesman for the new military police-led task force sweeping the eastern provinces for illegal wood, Eng Hy, said on Sunday authorities were still investigating the suspected arson case and had yet to identify any suspects.

Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the formation of the task force on January 15, placing National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha in charge.

On Sunday, General Sokha visited Ratanakkiri province, a hotbed of illegal logging where rubber plantation owners have long been accused of laundering trees logged inside the province’s nominally protected forests and wildlife sanctuaries.

Brigadier General Hy, also a spokesman for the military police, said his boss met with local officials, but he declined to say whether the task force has found any illegal activity or illicit timber stocks in the province.

Ratanakkiri is home to several depots owned by well-known timber magnate Try Pheap, who also runs a dry port next to the O’Yadaw International Checkpoint for exporting large volumes of wood to Vietnam. Despite numerous reports and investigations linking his facilities and employees to the area’s illegal logging trade, Mr. Pheap, who denies any involvement, has never been prosecuted.

On Friday, Mr. Pheap’s eponymous company, the Try Pheap Group, issued a public statement denying unspecified accusations that it had ties to the Unigreen Resources rubber plantation in Mondolkiri, which local officials have accused of laundering wood, according to a National Police report issued early last month.

After two weeks of visits to rubber plantations and timber warehouses across the eastern prov- inces, the task force has yet to say whether it has found a single ill-gotten log.

Environmental rights groups and activists are skeptical that this latest campaign against illegal logging by the government, which itself is widely reported to play a major part in the trade, is genuine and will lead to any meaningful change.

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