oral district, Kompong Speu province – A woman who said she was the wife of a top government official contracted the purchase of 4.3 cubic meters of luxury timber from villagers within Oral Wildlife Sanctuary and used a forestry official to procure and transport the wood, villagers and forestry officials said.
The timber was confiscated
Feb 11 by rangers trained and supported by the NGO Conservation International at the Thpong district forestry station, forestry officials in Thpong and Ou Taong said Monday. The villagers said they were never paid.
Om Yentieng, an adviser on human rights to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the reports were untrue. “I would like to deny any reports that my wife is involved in timber purchasing,” he said Tuesday.
Pong Sokit, chief of Ou Taong village inside Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, said Monday he was the middleman for the deal, first proposed by Phan Pheary, head of forestry for Sangke Sartob commune, which abuts the wildlife sanctuary.
“Pheary first came to contact me in early February to buy the wood,” Pong Sokit said. “He said he was going to buy it for Om Yentieng’s wife.”
Then, he said, Om Yentieng’s wife came to the village with two bodyguards and Phan Pheary on the day before the confiscation.
Six villagers as well as a forestry official and soldiers reported seeing or hearing about the visit. They said the woman was small and pretty with medium-toned skin.
“She asked me,” Pong Sokit said. “She said she needed to buy wood, nice wood, beng. And that she wanted big pieces of wood.”
He took her to the homes of six local families who had cut beng, a species of luxury timber, he said. Sum Mith, one of six villagers who sold wood to the woman, said she came to his house and looked at the wood.
She had lunch there and told those she met that she needed the wood for a window and a door at her house, he said, but she added that her husband didn’t know about her excursion.
She agreed to buy the timber for nearly $1,500 after the visit, Pong Sokit and Sum Mith said, and Phan Pheary came with a Korean truck and driver to pick up the wood on Feb 11.
After Phan Pheary loaded the timber, Pong Sokit asked for the money.
“Usually then you must pay the money,” Pong Sokit said. “I asked for the money, but he said, don’t worry, you will go to my house to get it.”
But on the trip back, Phan Pheary was stopped by rangers in Thpong, about 15 km down the road, and the wood was confiscated. He never paid the villagers, though Pong Sokit has gone to Phan Pheary’s house in Odong district several times to demand the money.
Om Yentieng said his wife was not in Ou Taong and that his house is made out of cement, so he does not need timber.
The villagers were not sure of the woman’s name and Phan Pheary’s wife, Keam Sophanny, 32, refused to reveal the woman’s name. Villagers said she was Om Yentieng’s third wife, indicating she may not be legally married to him.
However, Keam Sophanny said Monday she and Phan Pheary had visited the couple’s house in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district several times and met both the woman and Om Yentieng.
“We want Om Yentieng’s wife to be responsible,” Keam Sophanny said. “This is her wood, her thing.”
Phan Pheary refused to comment.
His wife said she and Phan Pheary are in debt after paying a fine of $2,500, and he has been suspended from work.
According to several articles in the Forestry Law, a forestry official committing a forestry offense is subject to one to five years in prison and a fine of $2,500 to $25,000. According to Article 96, the woman could be subject to a fine of two to three times the market value of the wood.
Ty Sokhun, Forestry Administration director, and Ieng Saveth, head of the forest crime monitoring unit, refused to comment Tuesday, referring questions to the public affairs unit. Deputy director of public affairs Than Sarath was not familiar with the case.
An Oral forestry official close to the case said he had seen the woman in her car on the road to Ou Taong.
The official, who asked not to be named, but said he had been implicated by the NGO Conservation International in the timber deal, said that the woman also went to the Thpong office in the evening the day the timber was confiscated. She tried unsuccessfully to negotiate its release, he said.
Conservation International director Jake Brunner could not be reached for comment.
Keam Sophanny said it was the first time her husband had arranged a deal for Om Yentieng’s wife, but that the woman came to her house every couple of weeks to visit.
“The case is a classic example,” said Marcus Hardtke of Global Witness. “Forestry officials are becoming facilitators in timber deals.”
The anonymous forestry official said there would have been no trouble with the deal if Conservation International hadn’t been involved and Phan Pheary had been a little more discrete.
“He took and transported the wood in the daytime,” the official said. “The NGO stopped him. He said, this wood is for Om Yentieng’s lady who is building a house—meaning that it should not be a problem because it is for a top official’s house. But the NGO didn’t care.”