Environment Minister Say Sam Al on Thursday identified three magnates involved in timber trafficking, including Prime Minister Hun Sen’s adviser Try Pheap, but said they had “agreed to stop” their illicit operations.
Mr. Sam Al declined to say whether any legal action was planned to address lingering allegations against Mr. Pheap, who had been named as one of the country’s foremost “timber gangsters” by environmental watchdog Global Witness; Lim Bunna, who has been linked to a number of illegal logging cases in Cambodia’s northeast; or Vun Bun Thai, a timber dealer recently connected to a large cache of luxury wood in Tbong Khmum province.
“We met the high-level tycoons in the forest,” Mr. Sam Al said of his efforts to rein in illegal logging. Asked who those tycoons were, he identified the three as “Oknha Kna, Try Pheap, Oknha Thai,” using an honorific reserved for those who have donated more than $100,000 to the state.
“They have agreed to stop,” he said.
The government was determined to build cases against “middle-level business people” engaged in selling illegal timber, Mr. Sam Al said during a media forum on environmental protection issues in Phnom Penh.
The minister declined to provide any further information on whom he intended to bring to court, saying only, “You will find out soon.”
“I appeal to you to help us build the cases to bring middle-level business people to court,” he told reporters, shortly after commenting on the ongoing problem of “mischievous journalists” telling authorities about timber-loaded trucks only after failing to extort money from their owners.
While the government’s task force on illegal logging, established earlier this year, has seized over 70,000 cubic meters of luxury wood, no one involved in the trade has been prosecuted.
Pen Bonnar, a senior forestry and land rights researcher for rights group Adhoc, expressed hope that Mr. Sam Al would stay true to his word.
“If they say that they will bring cases, and then later on, they don’t…they’re in the wrong and should be taken to court,” he said, referencing laws that bar “officials, local authorities, police officers, members of the royal armed forces or any other authorities” from “directly or indirectly” allowing forest exploitation.
Mr. Bonnar has brought a number of cases against such officials himself, as well as two cases against Mr. Bunna and Mr. Thai. The cases are ongoing.
As for Mr. Sam Al’s meeting with the timber magnates, Mr. Bonnar said it was also seemingly criminal.
“These three oknhas are famous for their crimes,” he said. “If the ministries know clearly that these three have committed forestry offenses, and if they then negotiate with them and do no more—that, too, is a crime.”
Mr. Sam Al also acknowledged the continued trade of illegal wood, promising in Thursday’s meeting that a decree would be introduced next week that would make provincial authorities responsible for stopping the transport of such timber.