The government is refusing to release copies of letters it claims to have sent to timber traders Try Pheap and Lim Bunna giving them permission to collect already felled wood on a pair of canceled economic land concessions (ELCs) inside a wildlife sanctuary.
On January 18, at the meeting of a new task force charged with stamping out illegal logging in eastern Cambodia, Mondolkiri provincial governor Eng Bunheang said that two ELCs canceled in January 2015 had since been given out again, one to Mr. Pheap and the other to Mr. Bunna.
If true, the turnover would be in breach of a moratorium Prime Minister Hun Sen placed on granting new ELCs in mid-2012. The next day, however, Sao Sopheap, spokesman for the Environment Ministry, which manages the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary, denied the governor’s account.
Mr. Sopheap said the businessmen had only been given permission to collect timber that had already been cut down on the canceled ELCs and that they did not have the right to fell any more, but he declined to provide details of the alleged deals.
Last week, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) followed up on a report in The Cambodia Daily with a letter to the ministry asking for clarity on exactly what was being done with the two sites.
Contacted on Monday, Mr. Sopheap said the letters would not be released anytime soon.
“It is an internal document between the ministries,” he said. “I don’t think that we can publish this at this time.”
Mr. Sopheap added that the work of the new task force meant that the records could not be released. Asked why the task force’s work should prevent the release of a document, he replied: “I do not have time to explain it to you if you do not understand.”
Task force spokesman Eng Hy said it had indeed put a block on all documents.
“We are not able to release any documents because the experts of the Forestry Administration are working on the case and it is under investigation,” he said.
Vann Sophath, the land rights project coordinator for CCHR, said his NGO had yet to receive a reply to its January 26 request.
He said the ministry was obliged to release the records.
“This is the responsibility of the government,” Mr. Sophath said. “It should be transparent so affected people can learn about this. Because as a society we should know…because there could be something behind, secret.”
Rights groups and residents who live around ELCs often accuse the owners of using their concessions to launder wood illegally logged outside of their boundaries.
Mr. Pheap, in particular, has been accused by rights groups of moving vast quantities of illegally logged timber through his concessions and depots across the country. His representatives have denied the allegations.
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)