Authorities in Oddar Meanchey province found a haul of valuable luxury wood inside the luggage compartment of a passenger bus on Friday, but let the driver go although he later admitted to smuggling the wood.
Chongkal district military police chief Un Kimseng said the Rith Mony Transport Co. bus was on its way from Oddar Meanchey to Phnom Penh when his officers were tipped off to its illicit cargo.
“We received an anonymous call informing us that the bus was transporting illegal wood. We stopped the bus and found many pieces of thnong and rosewood inside,” he said.
Mr. Kimseng said the bus and wood were sent to the Forestry Administration’s division office in Samraong City and that the passengers were all told to make the rest of their journey by other means.
Teang Davuth, who heads the Forestry Administration’s Samraong division, confirmed that the wood was being kept at his office and included 80 pieces of thnong and three pieces of rosewood. Both are luxury-grade hardwoods and can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars per cubic meter.
Provincial court prosecutor Koy Kanya said he questioned the bus driver but let him go after deciding he had nothing to do with the crime.
“We detained the bus driver then let him return home because he was not involved with the wood,” he said. “We plan to invite the bus owner for questioning because we suspect that the company is involved.”
However, in an interview Sunday, the driver, Sous Layheng, said he had in fact agreed to transport the wood from Samraong to a shop in Battambang province for $80 after making a deal with a woman whose name he claimed not to know.
“The Forestry Administration allowed me to return home and that I have to pay a fine for the confiscated wood,” he said. “I will pay, but they have not told me how much yet.”
Asked about Mr. Layheng’s account, Mr. Kanya, the prosecutor, still insisted that the driver was not responsible and that authorities were focusing their efforts on finding the wood’s owner.
Pang Rim, who heads Rith Mony’s operations in Phnom Penh, said Mr. Layheng would nonetheless be fired for violating company policy.
“I always tell the drivers at every meeting not to violate the company’s internal rules and that we will fire anyone who does not follow their duties,” he said. “I called [Mr. Layheng] and told him that the company will not be responsible for this and that he needs to get the bus back.”