Five Thai loggers were taken into custody last week in Battambang province after they illegally crossed the border to cut timber, provincial authorities said.
The arrests indicate a strengthening of Cambodia’s efforts to curb a chaotically-managed and corrupt logging industry which has stripped the country of much of its forests in recent years.
The Thais, who told police they were paid by a Cambodian to work in the province’s Ratanakmondol district, were arrested by military police specifically looking for illegal logging, according to Im Dara, deputy provincial military police commander.
In an unprecedented attempt to fight illegal logging, the five will face prosecution in Battambang province court, Im Dara said.
“This is the first time Thai people were arrested and the first time we have sent them to court,” he said Tuesday.
Officials admit that Thais frequently entered Cambodia to log or hunt, but often did so in former Khmer Rouge controlled territories where the government had little authority.
“Many of them were arrested by Cambodian authorities at former Khmer Rouge bases along the border, but later they were released,” said Battambang pro-vince military police commander Por Vannak.
Many illegal loggers continue to work undetected with the help of Cambodians, province police commissioner Heng Chantha said.
Provincial court director Nil Non said authorities are also looking for a Cambodian government official who allegedly organized the logging party. No court date will be set for the five suspects until an investigation into the alleged logging ring is complete, Nil Non said.
The International Monetary Fund pulled out of Cambodia in late 1996 in large part because of corruption in the logging industry. Donors made forestry reform one of the conditions of an aid package granted in February 1999, and the IMF re-engaged in Cambodia last October, but only after a number of reforms were carried out.
A recent Asian Development Bank-funded review characterized the commercial logging, or concession, system as a total failure.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has canceled three concessions that are virtually logged out, but watchdogs and NGOs are urging the government to place a moratorium on all commercial logging until new forest management plans are in place.