Prime Minister Hun Sen announced yesterday that he had removed the head of the Forestry Administration amid an ongoing crackdown on illegal logging.
Speaking at the annual conference of the Agriculture Ministry in Phnom Penh, the premier said he was removing Ty Sokhun that day to bolster the government’s pursuit of forestry crimes.
“I have found that His Excellency Ty Sokhun was not effective at resolving the issue,” the prime minister said. “I feel very disappointed. But if there is no removal of Ty Sokhun, [success] could not be achieved.”
Mr Sokhun was moved to the position of undersecretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry and has been replaced by Chheng Kim Sun, the ministry’s director of forest management, the prime minister said.
“Can you do the work? Can you execute the forestry law?” Mr Hun Sen asked of the new forestry chief. “This time Ty Sokhun can go free and walk away. But if your turn comes, it will be prison,” he added.
The premier told his audience that the time for educating people about Cambodia’s forests and the laws to protect them was over.
“I have already spoken a lot, so I do not need to explain any more,” he said. “It is time to crack down in any case…. There is no negotiation or exception.”
The premier brought up the example of RCAF Major General Chea Morn, whose son Chea Sophal turned himself in to authorities in Siem Reap City on March 24.
Mr Hun Sen yesterday said he had ordered this.
“The order to Chea Morn to take his son to court is painful. I suffer as much as [Mr Sophal’s] parents, but we must do it as an example,” he said. “I told Chea Morn that I have no choice. If you do not take your son to court I must fire you this afternoon.”
Though Maj Gen Morn has admitted that his son was involved in unspecified forestry crimes, Siem Reap Provincial Court officials said they were only holding Mr Sophal on a 2007 robbery charge related to a mobile phone.
Mr Sophal was apparently convicted of the robbery in absentia in 2007 and sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison. Siem Reap Deputy prosecutor Touch Peakdey said yesterday that a retrial of Mr Sophal’s mobile phone case was to begin today.
In a speech lasting almost three hours, Mr Hun Sen also repeated his standing order for authorities to pursue a drive against illegal logging and issued a special warning to government officials who think they may have escaped the long arm of the law.
“Now I call out to anyone who escaped that you must return. You cannot escape for the rest of your life,” Mr Hun Sen said.
“Even though Heng Pov ran to Malaysia, we were able to arrest him and put him in Prey Sar” prison, the prime minister said, referring to the former Phnom Penh police chief and prime ministerial adviser who was arrested in 2006 and since convicted of felonies including murder and kidnapping.
As for Mr Sokhun, the premier offered his fired forestry chief a few kind words.
“Do not be upset,” he said. “Just take this period as a life experience and try to work hard.”
Mr Sokhun could not be reached for comment.
Members of the media were denied access to a ceremony held at the Agriculture Ministry yesterday for Mr Kim Sun’s swearing in as the new forestry administration chief.
Reached by telephone, Mr Kim Sun said he was too busy to talk to a reporter.
Mr Sokhun’s removal yesterday is not the first instance of a forestry chief falling out of favor.
The government fired Chan Sarun, who is now agriculture minister, from the post in 1997 amid complaints from environmental groups that Cambodia’s forests were disappearing at an alarming rate.
The year before, the International Monetary Fund withdrew a $20 million loan while blaming the government for failing to end illegal logging and to deposit timber revenues into the state’s coffers.
The CPP eventually named Mr Sarun an undersecretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry in 2000 promoting him up to minister the next year.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, called Mr Sokhun’s transfer “a pleasant surprise.”
“As head of the Forestry Administration, he should be responsible for this illegal logging,” he said.
Whether the removal will help curb the country’s illegal logging trade, he added, remains to be seen.
“The missing part of this whole [crackdown] is the prosecution,” Mr Virak said of the ongoing crackdown.
In a 2007 report, which drew angry denials from Mr Hun Sen and Mr Sokhun, environmental campaigners Global Witness said that under Mr Sokhun’s direction, the Forestry Administration had facilitated an illegal logging syndicate linked to the families of the country’s business and political elite.
“They are crazy,” Mr Sokhun said at the time. “Global Witness lied on every page.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter and Van Roeun)