Police in Kompong Cham province seized more than 20 tons of illegally logged rosewood from a warehouse owned by a wealthy timber trader on Tuesday, but failed to arrest five men who ran from the scene as officers arrived, officials said Wednesday.
And while the provincial police chief said the owner of the warehouse was the primary suspect in the case, a Forestry Administration official said the man would not be investigated because he held the royally bestowed title of “oknha.”
Provincial police chief Pen Roath said 10 of his officers raided the warehouse in Chamkar Loeu district after hearing about renewed activity at the building, which was believed to have been abandoned.
“Our authorities received a complaint from a villager and we investigated for two weeks before taking action,” he said.
Brigadier General Roath said that when his officers descended on the warehouse, a group of men ran out of the building and disappeared into the woods.
“We saw five people escape from the warehouse on foot and run into a nearby forest, leaving three vehicles in front of the warehouse,” he said, adding that the abandoned cars—two Toyota sedans and Korean-made pickup truck—had proved useful to investigators.
“We found identity cards for the suspects in the cars,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Roath said piles of rosewood logs were found inside the warehouse, but that he could not estimate the quantity or value of the luxury-grade timber, which was handed over to the Forestry Administration.
According to the National Police website, the haul totaled 20 tons. A photograph of the warehouse on the website shows a half-dozen piles of rough-hewn logs, most between 1 and 3 meters long.
The police chief said the warehouse belonged to a well-connected wood dealer named Ly Chhun Ou, who despite using the space to store illegally harvested timber in the past had managed to avoid arrest and prosecution.
Brig. Gen. Roath said Mr. Chhun Ou was also suspected of owning the rosewood seized on Tuesday.
“We suspect the wood belongs to Mr. Ly Chhun Ou,” he said, adding that police were attempting to contact and locate him.
Prak Noma, head of the Forestry Administration’s Kompong Cham cantonment, said his officials were in the process of measuring the rosewood and refused to estimate its value. He also said Mr. Chhun Ou owned the warehouse where the wood was found.
“He is an oknha, so we have no right to accuse him of being involved with the rosewood,” Mr. Noma said, referring to a title given to businessmen who have made significant contributions to the state.
“We will investigate to find out who owns the wood, but I have no plans to call the oknha for questioning,” he said. “And if we accuse him, he will file a complaint against us.”