At a Council of Ministers meeting on Friday, Prime Minister Hun Sen reiterated earlier calls for the prosecution of illegal loggers and the dismantling of their operations, saying suspects should be pursued regardless of “how powerful they are or with whom they have relationships.”
The remarks reported in a statement by the ministry came as authorities in Siem Reap province last week claimed to have seized hundreds of cubic meters of high-value timber found on land owned by government officials and businessmen.
Timber has been discovered on property belonging to CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin, Tourism Ministry Secretary of State Kor Sumsaroeut, businessman Ang Try and hotel magnate Sok Kong, according to both deputy provincial military police chief Nhem Seila and provincial prosecutor Ty Sovannthal.
According to Mr Sovannthal, the seized wood amounted to at least 500 cubic meters and included luxury-grade Thnong species, for which a general logging ban exists, and the first-grade Phchek and Sokrom species.
However, the reasons for the criminal inquiry remained unclear yesterday as authorities have stopped short of accusing the men of any wrongdoing and disagreed as to whether the wood in question was in fact legitimately obtained, as two of the men claimed.
Provincial governor Sou Phirin said Thursday the wood was mostly illegal.
“We have checked those properties belonging to those” people, Mr Phirin. “Most of the timber is illegal and only some is legal.”
Yet Mr Sovannthal, the prosecutor, and Ty Sokhun, director of the Forestry Administration, said the wood found on property owned by Mr Kong was probably duly licensed.
Mr Sokhun said the wood found on Mr Meng Khin’s property was probably illicit but belonged to other people.
“It is illegal. The timber found on Senator Lao Meng Khin’s land did not belong to him. It may belong to his nephew or nieces,” he said.
Reached by telephone yesterday, Mr Kong said all the timber on his Siem Reap property was obtained legally through a Forestry Administration auction of seized wood and was destined for several hotels he was building.
“Those timbers are legal. I bought them during Forestry Administration bidding,” he said. “I was licensed for around 20,000 cubic meters but I have only about 800 to 900 cubic meters now.”
Mr Sumsaroeut of the Tourism Ministry also denied that the timber on his Siem Reap property, which he said he intended to use to build a house, was obtained illegally.
“I bought it three or four years ago,” he said Thursday. “I don’t think those timbers are illegal because I bought them from a vendor in Siem Reap.”
Mr Meng Khin and Mr Try could not be reached.
Mr Sovannthal, the prosecutor, said he was also still unsure who the actual owners of the timber are.
“The timber was located on those [people’s] lands but we do not know who owns the timber…. We keep investigating for the owners,” he said. “If we cannot find the owners, we will charge based on the facts and pass the case to the investigating judge for further investigation.”
Mr Sovannthal said the wood claimed by authorities had yet to be moved.
Also in Siem Reap, the provincial court on Friday charged 55-year-old Duch Savoeun, the alleged ringleader of the province’s timber smuggling operations, with “storing illegal materials,” according to Mr Sovannthal. He said Ms Savoeun had confessed to storing 100 cubic meters at her home in Oddar Meanchey province.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday said yesterday that authorities in Siem Reap had also detained five government employees on suspicion of unspecified forest crimes, but he declined to provide their names or titles.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, Cambodia lost almost 30 percent of its primary forest cover between 2000 and 2005. Despite the recent crackdown, human rights workers and monitors say Cambodia’s policing of forest crime has been cyclical at best while the NGO Global Witness in 2007 provoked outrage in a banned report claiming that illegal logging was controlled by Cambodia’s business and government elite as well as the military.
The seizures and arrests follow a public order given by Mr Hun Sen in January urging government officials to crack down on forest crime.
Mr Sokhun of the Forestry Administration said that in just over a week, the his agency has seized more than 2,300 cubic meters of wood, including 1,700 cubic meters of milled timber and 650 cubic meters cut into planks.
Tim Sitha, director of law enforcement at the Forestry Administration, said last week that the administration had seized about 2,000 cubic meters in all of 2009.