Mondolkiri Provincial Court charged a national police officer with intentional killing on Friday, the latest in an increasing trend of violent disputes over timber in the restive province.
Pheng Sokheng, who was sent to the Seima Protected Forest to stifle the work of illegal loggers, on Wednesday night allegedly opened fire on a car suspected of transporting luxury timber, killing one man and seriously wounding another.
“The prosecutor has questioned him and he will be sent to the prison today,” said provincial prosecutor Khut Sopheang.
“He is charged with intentional killing.”
Vann Sophanith, the 25-year-old driver of the vehicle, was killed. Pat Sou Kany, the 22-year-old stepson of an unnamed deputy provincial military police commander, was shot in the torso and taken to Vietnam for treatment.
The alleged killer, Mr. Sokheng, was in a group of police, soldiers and forestry administration personnel who were patrolling the protected forest when a Toyota Camry approached.
Nhem Vanny, provincial police chief, said that the group had attempted to stop the vehicle to search it for illegal timber and that when it ignored their signals, Mr. Sokheng fired a warning shot in the air before firing a second bullet that ricocheted off Mr. Sou Kany before killing Vann Sophanith.
No timber was found inside the vehicle.
Sin Vanvuth, governor of Keo Seima district, which has seen a number of clashes over luxury timber in recent months, said that Mr. Sokheng was out of line in his duty as a police officer and should be held to account.
“It is the opposite of implementing the law,” Mr. Vanvuth said of the shooting. “The law does not say to kill people when they commit a crime.”
“We cannot close our eyes to the perpetrator,” he added. “This is a lesson for all authorities.”
Mr. Vanvuth himself has been subjected to the increasingly volatile acts of officials involved in the logging business. In May, Sou Marith, a military police officer, allegedly put a gun to his head during a pre-dawn patrol.
The patrol team during that incident—stationed along National Road 76, the same road on which Wednesday’s killing occurred—stopped and searched a Lexus SUV and found 16 lengths of luxury Neang Nuon timber.
Soon after, a second SUV arrived. Mr. Marith got out and put his gun to the governor’s head before others in the vehicle—also military police—convinced him to put it down. He sped away and has not been arrested.
“The National Military Police removed him from his unit and the court issued an arrest warrant—now they are looking for him,” Mr. Vanvuth said on Friday.
The district governor said that Mr. Marith had built up a reputation as a ruthless operator in the fight for Mondolkiri’s luxury timber.
“He has been involved in shooting and threatening authorities many times,” he said.
In light of Wednesday’s shooting and the increasing unrest in Mondolkiri—particularly Keo Seima district and Sen Monorom City—deputy provincial governor Svay Sam Eang said that all authorities had been reminded of their duties.
These incidents are all related to people using their position to protect their own illegal interests,” Mr. Sam Eang said.
“The obligation is to implement the law, but some individuals use their roles to create trouble and this is what led to the killing.”