Authorities in Mondolkiri province seized eight trucks about to cross into Vietnam with illegally logged timber from the Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary and arrested seven of the drivers, six of them Vietnamese nationals, a provincial military police commander said on Thursday.
Sak Sarang, the commander, said a mixed force of more than 120 personnel converged on the O’houch border checkpoint in Keo Seima district acting on a tip-off from local authorities that illegal timber was crossing into Vietnam on a regular basis.
The government placed a blanket ban on all timber exports to Vietnam in January last year, in a tacit admission that much of it was illegal. However, Vietnamese customs data obtained by the U.S. NGO Forest Trends shows that tens of thousands of cubic meters of timber worth millions of dollars have still managed to make it through.
During Wednesday’s operation in Mondolkiri, authorities saw a total of 10 timber-loaded trucks lined up at the border checkpoint, but failed to stop two of them before they slipped across, said Keo Sopheak, the province’s environment department director.
The other trucks “drove into Vietnam and we did not dare to chase them,” he said. “We think our Khmer border protection officials opened the gate for those Vietnamese people because they could not enter Cambodia if we do not let them in.”
Mr. Sopheak said the seven drivers they arrested would be sent to the provincial court to face possible charges either today or Saturday, and that authorities were continuing their investigation to find anyone who may have helped them.
But Mr. Sopheak said that it was pointless to ask Vietnam for help to track the trucks that made it across the border and that he would not even bother trying.
“We never communicate directly with Vietnamese authorities, because we need the national level to do it for us,” he said. “And if we wait for the negotiations, then it’s too late.”
He said the eight trucks they seized contained between two and four logs each of first-grade Koki and Sralao wood, and that more than 100 other logs were found in the forest from which the trucks had come.
Military Platoon 621 commander Leng Sophoan, who is responsible for the O’houch crossing, said his officers were looking into how the trucks could have entered and left Cambodia.
“I already sent my officers to the area to investigate…who allowed those people to enter,” he said. “We will know in the next few days.”
The government claims that it has, for the most part, put an end to illegal logging in eastern Cambodia since launching a crackdown on the area’s illicit timber trade more than a year ago, though environmental and rights groups say it has made little difference.
In December, Cambodia Daily reporters found a thriving timber export market to Vietnam in Kratie province, facilitated by the very soldiers who were supposed to be helping to stop it.