Last week, wealthy businessman Soeng Sam Ol made headlines when a report posted to the website of the National Police accused him of illegally logging inside a wildlife sanctuary.
But by Thursday, the report had disappeared from the website, and a spokesman for the National Police suggested that it might have never existed in the first place.
The report, which was posted on January 4, accused Mr. Sam Ol of logging protected trees inside the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary in Mondolkiri province. It also alleged that he was using his rubber plantation, Dai Thanh, to launder the timber before selling it both locally and in Vietnam.
“Oknha Soeng Sam Ol is known to be involved in the logging inside the Phnom Prich Wildlife Sanctuary. Mr. Sam Ol used a trick by using the investment project of the Dai Thanh firm to cut the trees and transport the wood to sell on the international market,” the post said.
It added that the tycoon had hired locals who “used hundreds of chainsaws to cut down the trees every day, and they have transported the wood…to the Dai Thanh ELC [economic land concession] to make it [appear to be] wood that legally belongs to the company.”
However, despite the serious allegations laid out in the report, it has now disappeared without a trace.
“There is no information about that,” National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said on Thursday. “I checked the website, and I didn’t see any article about that.”
Lieutenant General Chantharith said he even asked Ath Buny, the official who runs the police’s news site, about the report.
“I checked with him, and he said he didn’t post anything about that,” he said.
Mr. Buny declined to comment on the missing post.
Sao Sopheap, a spokesman for the Environment Ministry, which manages the wildlife sanctuary, said on Thursday that he also could not find the post about Mr. Sam Ol on the National Police website when he looked for it. But prompted by multiple news reports about the allegations, he said, the ministry had launched an investigation.
Mr. Sopheap said local authorities in Mondolkiri had already reported back to the ministry with their findings, but he declined to go into detail.
“We are pursuing this. We have our own plan and strategy to tackle this matter,” he said. “We got the information and we are working on it.”
Asked what the field reports revealed about Mr. Sam Ol specifically, the spokesman said this was irrelevant.
“We are not interested in targeting individuals,” Mr. Sopheap said. “Our objective is to address illegal activity whatsoever…. So we are addressing the problem as a whole.”
Asked how the ministry intended to tackle illegal logging without pursuing the individuals behind it, he said it would “address the role of individuals and decide how to address [it].” However he still refused to say whether the field reports implicated Mr. Sam Ol.
“I don’t know…. We have to wait until a final decision from the government,” he said. “We know already who’s behind it, and we will take action. This is the final word. I’m sorry, I’m busy.”
In Mondolkiri, deputy provincial governor Svay Sam Eang said a team of investigators visited the Phnom Prich sanctuary last week, but left without any clear evidence of illegal logging.
“We went to the area last week to investigate, but we could not find evidence to accuse the oknha of exploiting the forest illegally,” he said.
He said provincial governor Eng Bunheang had called Mr. Sam Ol in for a meeting last week, but did not know what they discussed. The governor could not be reached for comment.
The head of the province’s environment department, Chhit Sophal, said he had also ordered the director of the wildlife sanctuary, Samrong Divichet, to investigate the claims against the businessman but had yet to hear back. Mr. Divichet could not be reached, either.
Local residents have been passing on reports of illegal logging by Mr. Sam Ol’s employees to environmental rights groups and reporters for the past few years. Earlier this month, a local environmental activist, Bleuk Mal, said he had recently seen the businessman’s employees continuing to log inside Phnom Prich.
In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Sam Ol denied the claims of logging, blaming them on jealousy and corruption.
“I am working on my company’s land. I think the authorities would take action if I was doing something wrong,” he said.
“Those people are jealous of me when they see us transporting the wood and accuse us of illegal logging,” Mr. Sam Ol said. “Their accusations are wrong because we are working inside the company and we pay tax to the state. We would lose money if we burned the wood. That’s why the company collects the wood and sells it for money.”
Some species of luxury-grade timber can fetch thousands of dollars per square meter, but the businessman said he did not know which species he was logging.
“I have little education,” he said.
He accused unnamed officials of being in on the claims of illegal logging against him, hoping he would bribe them to keep quiet.
“Provincial authorities accused me of illegal logging, then they wanted me to bring them money in an attempt to keep silent about me. But I did not go to meet them because I did nothing wrong,” he said.
Mr. Sam Ol confirmed his meeting with the provincial governor last week. But he said the governor only asked him for copies of his development plans in Phnom Prich and never broached the claims of illegal logging.
The January 4 National Police report also accused two other rubber concessions in Mondolkiri of laundering timber, Master K Sun and Unigreen, in addition to Mr. Sam Ol’s Dai Thanh. And last year, the manager of the Binh Phuoc Kratie Rubber 1 plantation, Cheng Sovichet, said that a businessman by the same name as Mr. Sam Ol had the rights to clear and sell the wood on his site as well.
However, Mr. Sam Ol said he had been hired to clear only Master K Sun, and was not working on any other plantations.
Illegal logging carries a prison sentence of up to five years, but prosecution of wealthy business people involved in the illicit trade is virtually unknown.
Satellite data has revealed that Cambodia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, and that the rate inside the Environment Ministry’s protected areas is about the same as the rate of forest loss nationwide. Most of that loss is taking place inside government-approved land concessions like Dai Thanh.
Over the past year, the Environment Ministry has canceled or downsized a number of concessions inside protected areas for violating their contracts with the government. But it has refused to reveal the specific infractions of the concessionaires, and has not brought criminal cases against any of them.