Gov’t Creates New Forestry Crimes Task Force

Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday announced the creation of a committee tasked with putting an end to the rampant illegal logging and cross-border timber smug­­gling taking place in the country’s northeast.

Speaking during the Council of Ministers’ weekly meeting, Mr. Hun Sen explained that he had appointed National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha as head of the special task force, said coun­cil spokesman Phay Siphan.

According to Mr. Siphan, the prime minister said the committee would include high-level officials from the National Police, National Military Police and Forestry Admin­istration, as well as the governors of provinces bordering Vietnam.

“Samdech Techo has also provided two military helicopters for this operation,” he said. “He or­dered that [unoffical] checkpoints be closed where illegal log smuggling is discovered.”

“Moreover, Samdech Techo also warned that if any officials do not take action [against criminals], he will remove them from their positions,” he added.

Mr. Hun Sen has repeatedly called for “crackdowns” on for­estry crimes, which have resulted in vast destruction of the country’s remaining forests.

While in­ternational watchdogs and local monitors have argued that illegal logging can occur only with the collusion of officials and security forces, the government has vociferously denied such allegations.

In 2004, an investigation by the London-based environmental group Global Witness revealed that military police in Kompong Speu prov­ince’s Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanc­tuary “essentially operate a local branch of the nation-wide luxury timber business run by military po­lice chief Lieutenant-General Sao Sokha.”

In a 2007 report, the same group said that General Sokha, who is also a deputy commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, “is directly involved in the illicit timber trade and that forces under his command are active in illegal cutting, transportation, protection and extortion.” He has forcefully denied the claims.

A statement released by the Council of Ministers on Friday offered further details about the committee’s remit, saying the com­ing clampdown would focus on Tbong Khmum province.

In a re­port posted to its website earlier this month, the National Police ac­cused wealthy businessman Soeng Sam Ol of illegal logging in Mondolkiri, and of smuggling the wood to Vietnam through Tbong Khmum.

The report has since been taken down.

Reached by telephone on Friday, Gen. Sokha declined to comment, saying, “I don’t work with the [Cam­bodia] Daily. I don’t talk with the Daily because the Daily never writes a good thing about me.”

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