Police and government officials say they know nothing about a recent report published by the National Police accusing wealthy businessman Soeng Sam Ol of using government-approved economic land concessions (ELCs) in Mondolkiri province to illegally log a local wildlife sanctuary, but added that they would investigate the claims.
The National Police leveled the accusations against the oknha—an honorific that is secured with a minimum $100,000 donation to the state—in an article posted to its website on Monday. It said Mr. Sam Ol was cutting down protected trees inside the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary and using the Dai Thanh ELC, which sits inside the sanctuary, to launder the wood before selling it off, both locally and across the border into Vietnam.
The post made similar allegations of timber laundering against two other ELCs in Mondolkiri, Unigreen and Master K Sun, but offered no evidence and made no mention of what—if any—action authorities would take against the oknha or the companies. Illegal logging carries a prison sentence of up to five years.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said on Wednesday that he knew nothing about the report or the allegations in it, and would look into them before commenting. Ath Buny, an editor in the force’s news operation, declined to comment on the article.
Mondolkiri governor Eng Bunheang also said he knew nothing of the allegations.
“We will investigate and arrest the oknha if our authorities find out that he has really been exploiting the forests outside the land concession,” he said.
“I have not yet received information that the oknha has been exploiting the forests outside the land concession. But I have given strong orders to the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary director, Samrong Divichet, to make arrests if any company is not respecting its government contract.”
Local officials have in the past said that Mr. Sam Ol was hired by concessionaires in the province to clear their properties of forest and had rights to sell the wood he collected. But Mr. Bunheang said on Wednesday that the oknha had purchased both the Dai Thanh and Master K Sun concessions from their previous owners, though he did not know when.
On Monday, Mr. Divichet, the sanctuary director, said he had no evidence of illegal logging by Mr. Sam Ol, and provincial police spokesman Van Danin said officers would be visiting the sanctuary to investigate the allegations. Contacted again on Wednesday, Mr. Danin said he did not know if officers had made the trip yet.
Officials with the Environment Ministry, which manages the sanctuary, said they knew nothing about the illegal logging allegations, either.
Ministry spokesman Sao Sopheap said he was unaware of the claims on Tuesday, and could not be reached on Wednesday. Mondolkiri environment department director Chhit Sophal said on Wednesday that his own officials would be looking into the allegations.
“Soeng Sam Ol has a license to exploit the forest on the land concession, but I think the information about logging outside the land concession is probably about normal people who sneak into the forest to cut the trees,” he said.
“I am not sure if the oknha is involved in the logging outside the land concession, but we will know clearly when our officials visit the area this weekend to investigate.”
The only relevant person who said he did know of the scathing police report was a local employee of the World Wide Fund for Nature, which works with the Environment Ministry on patrolling the Phnom Prich sanctuary.
“Illegal logging is incessant in the wildlife sanctuary, but I don’t know who is involved,” said Moul Phath, the NGO’s eastern plains landscape manager, who welcomed the police report.
“It’s good, because we need police to take action immediately, otherwise the illegal logging will keep happening because rich men [are] behind them.”
Mr. Sam Ol could not be reached for comment.
Yich Samethy, who identified himself as a lawyer for the Dai Thanh concession, said he did not know enough about the firm’s activities to comment and declined to provide contact information for company officials.
A woman who answered the phone number listed by the Commerce Ministry for the Master K Sun concession said she worked for the Commerce Ministry’s administration department, not the company, and had never heard of the firm.
Local villagers have been blaming Mr. Sam Ol for illegal logging in the province for the past few years and accuse local officials of either turning a blind eye or colluding with the businessman.
© 2016, All rights reserved.