The environmental watchdog Global Witness said Thursday that Cambodia’s two prime ministers in January authorized the export of $60 million of processed timber from the ex-Khmer Rouge stronghold of Pailin.
The London-based group cited two documents it said permit the export of a total of 178,000 cubic meters of wood, but don’t specify date, location, recipient or grade.
“By authorizing these deals without any specifics, it’s like giving a blank check to Ieng Sary,” Patrick Alley, a Global Witness director, said in a telephone interview from London on Thursday.
Ieng Sary is the former Khmer Rouge deputy premier who split from the KR leadership two years ago and now cooperates with the Phnom Penh government.
It’s not illegal to export processed wood, but Alley noted that an April 1997 ruling states that such wood must come from a legal concession and isn’t allowed to be shipped across the Thai border from Pailin.
Although the export documents call for the government to collect taxes, Alley noted that forestry and customs officials have no jurisdiction in the area, making it unlikely that revenues will be collected.
The International Monetary Fund suspended aid to Cambodia in late 1996, in large part because of the government’s failure to channel logging revenues into the national budget.
Alley also cast doubts on whether all of the wood would be processed, arguing that there is not enough processing capacity in the Pailin area to handle such volume. Log exports are illegal.
Global Witness timed its disclosure with the visit to Phnom Penh of the World Bank director of East Asia and the Pacific region. Global Witness said the World Bank official will meet with senior government officials to discuss forestry issues.
Agriculture Minister Tao Seng Huor, who oversees the country’s forestry department, said Thursday afternoon he hasn’t seen any documents on the Pailin exports.
Chan Dara, spokesman for First Prime Minister Ung Huot, said the Global Witness report is not true. “Ung Huot did not sign the export of timber,” nor would he because of his concern for the country’s forests, Chan Dara said.
Officials from Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
A document reviewed by The Cambodia Daily indicates that the prime ministers in January approved the export of 105,000 cubic meters of processed wood from Pailin. Alley said he doesn’t think the exports have occurred yet.
Deforestation already is dramatic in the Pailin area, with virtually no forests visible from the road between Pailin and Phnom Malai, according to Global Witness. “The only forests preserved are because of the land mines in the area,” Alley said.
Earlier this year, Global Witness reported that top Cambodian and Vietnamese officials had colluded on illegal log shipments in northeast Cambodia totaling hundreds of millions of dollars.