A Pursat provincial government spokesman said on Monday that local land concessions owned by timber baron Try Pheap have no more luxury-grade trees on them, a few days after a man identified as a driver for the company was confirmed to be transporting luxury-grade timber through the area.
But the spokesman, Koeut Chhe, said that he was not aware of any investigation into the discrepancy, which opens the possibility that the timber was from outside Mr. Pheap’s concessions and being laundered through them.
On Sunday, Phnom Kravanh district military police chief Chan Sokha said that a driver for Mr. Pheap’s MDS company, Keo Sok Heng, had called authorities to complain that three journalists had extorted him earlier in the day. District governor Sau Sahong said Mr. Sok Heng had accused the journalists of demanding $300 from him so they would not report on the luxury-grade timber they had spotted in his truck.
The three journalists have since been arrested and charged with extortion.
On Monday, Mr. Chhe said that Mr. Pheap, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, still had a license to transport timber from the two MDS concessions because, though nearly denuded of all tree cover, one of them still has a roughly 1,300-hectare patch of forest left. But he said it had no luxury-grade trees left.
“The trees are only first- and second-grade,” Mr. Chhe said.
Asked whether the government had plans to look into why an MDS driver was transporting luxury wood for concessions that had none, the spokesman said he was not aware of any.
“I have no authority to check the company for forest crimes because I just work as a spokesman,” he said. “Only the Forestry Administration has the right to investigate.”
Local forestry offices had for years been under direct control of the Agriculture Ministry, but were placed under the jurisdiction of provincial governments last year. The head of the local Forestry Administration cantonment, Ngy Virak, declined to speak with a reporter.
Mr. Pheap has been widely and repeatedly accused of using his land concessions in Pursat and across the country to run one of the largest timber laundering rackets in the country. Representatives for the businessman have consistently denied the allegations.