Death toll mounts as Cambodians are lured by lucrative rosewood trade
Eight Cambodians suspected of illegally logging along the Thai-Cambodian border have been shot dead by Thai soldiers, and three others have been wounded in the month of October alone, human rights workers and officials said Friday.
The latest figure brings the death toll so far this year to 11—two more than the total number of recorded deaths on the border in 2010 and the same number as all of the cases in 2009, according to figures provided by rights group Adhoc.
“There were a lot of cases of Cambodian civilians sneaking into the jungle for logging rosewood in Thailand’s territory in October,” Adhoc’s Chan Soveth said, “which is why the number of shooting incidents was extremely high last month.”
The figures provided by Adhoc demonstrate just how far people are willing to go to get their hands on sought-after rosewood, which is used in high-end furniture, particularly in China, some items of which can cost up to one million dollars.
The October figure of eight deaths was confirmed Friday by Sek Samon, deputy-chief of the Thai-Cambodian Border Affairs Bureau.
Mr Soveth, deputy head of monitoring for Adhoc, said that in the last three years 27 Cambodians have been killed on the Thai border, while 25 others were wounded or went missing. Most of these cases took place in Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey provinces.
According to Adhoc, the rosewood loggers operate within a complex system that relies on collusion between government authorities and Cambodian and Thai businessmen.
In some cases, Thai security forces contact Cambodian businesspeople to send a group of four or five Cambodians to remove the cut logs from Thailand to Cambodia. The logs are then shipped to buyers in Vietnam and China, Mr Soveth said.
He also said that poor farmers who reside in distant provinces are tricked by ringleaders promising $500 or $1,000 to remove the cut logs, with little understanding of the risks they are about to undertake by entering the Thai forests, which are patrolled by border forces.
“Their offenses don’t warrant them being shot at and killed,” Mr Soveth added.
“The activities of Thai forces shooting them dead still exist because they look down on Cambodians’ lives.”
“Although there is a collusion between Cambodian forces and businessmen with Thai forces in the logging operation…Cambodian laborers are still shot at and killed when they meet other groups of Thai soldiers who are not party to the collusion,” he added.
Speaking by phone yesterday, 41-year-old Saum Suom from Oddar Meanchey’s O’Smach commune said her husband was one of those who had been led into believing that he could earn good money from logging rosewood in Thailand.
“He left the village with other neighbors after he was informed he could earn a lot of money to remove cut rosewood in Thailand. But he was shot at and killed by Thai soldiers,” she said. Now, “nobody has come to help me seek justice.”
Human rights workers said that the shooting was unlikely to abate as long as the Cambodian government refused to pressure the Thai government to investigate the use of deadly force at the border.
Government officials disputed that claim. Border forces have been working hard to disseminate information to Cambodians vulnerable to engaging in logging and prevent them from crossing illegally, Mr Samon said.
“But they are so ambitious when they are promised a lot of money. Some people continue to sneak into Thailand to log rosewood-they know the location very clearly which is why they can avoid our forces,” he said.
Spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Koy Kuong insisted the government was doing all it could with regards to pressuring Thailand on the matter.
“After each shooting, we always send a protest note to seek justice for the victims,” said Mr Kuong. He admitted, however, that the government rarely receives a response from Thailand. (Additional reporting by Abby Seiff)