A band of illegal loggers in Banteay Meanchey province’s Malai district ambushed a convoy of government officials Sunday evening, killing two people, shortly after government agents had stormed into the loggers’ camp and seized eight tractors, officials said Monday.
The government convoy was returning to Malai town with the confiscated equipment when approximately 20 loggers opened fire, killing an RCAF soldier and a local villager standing nearby. The loggers drove six of the tractors into dense jungle as they fled, officials said.
“We are still investigating the case,” said a Banteay Meanchey police officer who asked not to be named. The names of the victims were not immediately available.
The officer said the government team was taken by surprise. “Our team did not realize at first that they were being fired on by the loggers,” he said. The fighting lasted about five minutes, he said.
The attack comes amid signs of a strengthened crackdown on illegal loggers, many of whom continue to operate in former concessions and wildlife sanctuaries despite a nationwide moratorium on cutting.
Government forces in Mondolkiri and Kompong Thom provinces confiscated saws and logs last week, and two government officials in Oddar Meanchey province were demoted Thursday after it was revealed that they had conspired in allowing unlicensed timber into Thailand, forestry officials said.
Oddar Meanchey Agriculture Department Director Pen Marandi said Sunday that his department made the decision to remove the pair from their posts, although they were allowed to stay on in the office handling menial tasks.
“This was an administrative penalty for people who made mistakes,” he said.
The apparent nationwide crackdown comes just weeks after the government fired its independent environmental watchdog, the British-based NGO Global Witness, for what some officials said were exaggerated reports of illegal logging in Cambodia.
The firing followed months of friction between the Department of Forestry and Global Witness, which accused the government of doing too little to stop the plundering of Cambodia’s forests.
Global Witness country representative Eva Galabru said Monday she has noticed more government action recently, though Global Witness officials in the past have pointed to the government’s weak record for prosecuting illegal loggers.
Galabru added that Global Witness’ own investigators have come under fire in the Malai area in the past. She said the investigators were not fired at directly, but had warning shots fired over their heads.
“Most of the guys running around up there are armed,” she said.
The region was one of the last to come under government control, though to this day former Khmer Rouge forces hold most local offices. In a glaring example of the government’s weak control of the region, the Ministry of Environment has been powerless to stop military forces from clearing publicly owned land and selling it to the highest bidder, Galabru said.
The loggers targeted Sunday had been operating near Takong village, Takong commune in Malai district, in the Roniem Daun Sam wildlife sanctuary—a region that was under Khmer Rouge control until 1996. Two-thirds of the 178,750-hectare sanctuary lie in Battambang province and the remainder lies in Banteay Meanchey.
Poachers and loggers are frequently at work in the region: Though protected by royal decree since 1993, the sanctuary has lost nearly 50 percent of its wildlife habitat, according to a speech delivered by Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng at the June 2001 inauguration of the sanctuary’s headquarters.
Attacks on forestry officials are rare, though not uncommon.
Eva Galabru was knocked to the ground and kicked outside of her office April 30 last year in what her employer characterized as a blatant attempt to intimidate the monitor into silence.
A provincial forestry official was shot and killed in Kratie province July 25, 2000, shortly after he and a provincial environmental official tried to stop four boats loaded with illegally logged timber.
Illegal loggers were also blamed for a grenade attack on rangers working in Bokor National Park June 13, 2001. Three rangers were seriously wounded.