More than 200 villagers living on the fringe of a giant hydropower project in Stung Treng province are lobbying for their commune’s police chief to be removed, alleging that he habitually confiscates illegally logged wood from villagers on behalf of powerful business interests.
The villagers are being backed by their commune chief, who also accuses the police official of involvement in the illegal timber trade.
A petition thumbprinted by 210 residents of Sesan district’s Srekor commune and submitted to the district police chief on Thursday calls for the removal of Thai Sun Y, whom they accused of diverting timber to a company known to launder luxury wood through a concession set aside for the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam’s reservoir.
The petition also alleges that Mr. Sun Y selectively enforces fisheries laws, punishing only those who do not pay him to use illegal methods.
“We want the district police chief to fire the commune police chief because he…stops our motorbikes and oxcarts transporting timber to sell to wood dealers, but only confiscates it for the company,” Tha Vy, one of the signatories, said Thursday.
She named the company as one belonging to Royal Group chairman Kith Meng. In 2013, Mr. Meng’s Ang & Associates Lawyer company was granted a concession giving it the right to clear the 36,000-hectare dam reservoir, along with one other firm.
However, the area outside the reservoir, much of it lush forest, has also been heavily logged, and the concession has been used to launder the timber.
Srekor commune chief Siek Mekong said Thursday that the allegations against Mr. Sun Y were well founded, and that the abuse of power began soon after he was installed as police chief earlier this year.
Villagers in the area, having realized the fight to save their forests is hopeless, have taken to chopping them down and selling the timber to dealers. But according to Mr. Mekong, the new police chief has successfully diverted most of the wood back to the concession, where it is disguised as legally felled timber and sold on a thriving international market.
Mr. Thai Sun Y confiscates the wood “because he needs to collect it for the company of Oknha Kith Meng,” Mr. Mekong said.
Mr. Sun Y denied the allegations against him, claiming the villagers wanted revenge because he had taken legitimate action against their forest clearing activities.
“I am an authority. How can I deal in the timber business?” he said.
District police chief Un Sam Ath confirmed receipt of the petition and said he had passed it up to provincial police.
“We are not able to remove the commune police chief right now, because we need time to investigate,” he said.
Mr. Meng said he could not comment on the issue because he was overseas.