In Court, Timber Trader Denies Wrongdoing

A wealthy businessman suspected of dealing in illegal timber denied any connection to two piles of undocumented logs while being questioned at the Kratie Provincial Court on Wednesday—the first time a court has questioned a top trader since the start of a government dragnet two months ago.

Vun Bun Thai, a well-known timber trader in the region, was summoned over piles of undocumented logs authorities have found on two plantations in the province, one belonging to China Dynamic and another belonging to C&V.

Neither of the companies, nor Mr. Bun Thai, could be reached for comment.

But provincial court deputy prosecutor Hak Hoan said the timber trader denied any wrongdoing.

“Oknha Vun Bun Thai came to the court today for questioning, but he denied that the wood discovered on the property of C&V and China Dynamic belongs to him,” he said. Oknha is an honorific approved by the king and secured with a minimum $100,000 donation to the state.

The deputy prosecutor said Mr. Bun Thai acknowledged owning a sawmill in the province and admitted to having regularly purchased wood from the plantations, just not the logs under investigation.

“The oknha showed us a document to prove that his timber is legal and that he was not responsible for the logs that were found,” he said.

Representatives of the two plantations were also summoned for questioning on Wednesday but did not show up. Mr. Hoan said he would issue a second summons to question them and hand the case over to an investigating judge if they missed a second court date.

Mr. Bun Thai is the first businessman to be questioned by the courts since Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the creation of an ad hoc task force charged with rooting out illegal wood stocks in eastern Cambodia in mid-January.

Villagers and rights groups have for years linked the country’s rich and powerful to the country’s lucrative illegal logging trade. Although the new task force has identified Mr. Bun Thai and several other oknhas as suspects, rights groups remain skeptical that its actions will lead to meaningful prosecutions and, if they do, only serve to consolidate the illegal timber trade in the hands of a favored few.

Cambodia’s most notorious timber trader, Try Pheap, has largely evaded the task force’s gaze and maintains an exclusive deal with the government for first rights to buy up undocumented timber seized by authorities.

In Tbong Khmum province, next to Kratie, court prosecutor Heang Sopheak said on Wednesday that he, too, had summoned Mr. Bun Thai for questioning over separate timber piles, along with fellow Oknha Lim Bunna.

“I already received documents from the Forestry Administration and I recently issued two warrants to summon Oknha Vun Bun Thai and Oknha Lim Bunna for questioning,” he said, adding that he had forgotten the date of the court appointment.

In January, authorities in Tbong Khmum found 84 logs buried on land that Mr. Bun Thai has been using for years to store timber, and a second cache of buried logs within a kilometer of one of his sawmills.

[email protected]

Related Stories

Latest News