Provincial Raids Follow Birth of Illegal Logging Task Force

Authorities in neighboring Kratie and Tbong Khmum provinces raided a rubber plantation and a wealthy businessman’s warehouse in search of illegally logged timber on Sunday, days after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the creation of a task force charged with rooting out forest crime in the area.

During Friday’s Council of Ministers meeting, Mr. Hun Sen said National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha had been placed in charge of the force, which will work with authorities in the provinces bordering Vietnam—Tbong Khmum in particular.

On Sunday, Council spokesman Phay Siphan said the task force was focusing its attention on two men in particular: Lim Bunna and Soeng Sam Ol. Both are “oknhas,” an honorific reserved for those who have donated at least $100,000 to the state.

“The two people feel like they are untouchable,” he said.

Mr. Siphan said the Interior Ministry had already gathered evidence implicating the two businessmen, though he did not know what it was. He also said authorities had raided warehouses belonging to each man on Sunday, though he did not know what they found.

In Tbong Khmum, provincial court prosecutor Hiek Sopheak confirmed that police, military police and Forestry Administration officers inspected a warehouse belonging to Mr. Bunna packed with logs.

“We are now working with the Forestry Administration to measure the wood in the warehouse, but we do not yet know how many pieces are legal and how many pieces are illegal,” he said.

“We did not arrest the oknha; we only checked the warehouse. The oknha did not prevent us from entering the warehouse to check the wood, and we are checking it now.”

Mr. Sopheak declined to comment on what led authorities to the site before hanging up on a reporter. The prosecutor made no mention of Mr. Sam Ol.

A report posted to the National Police website two weeks ago, however, accused Mr. Sam Ol of using a rubber plantation in Mondolkiri province to launder illegally logged wood and using illegal border crossings in Tbong Khmum to smuggle it into Vietnam.

The Environment Ministry said last week that it was investigating the report but refused to say whether a recent field report from the province had implicated Mr. Sam Ol, who has denied the accusations against him.

Mr. Bunna could not be reached for comment.

The new task force was also at work in Kratie on Sunday, where military police raided a rubber plantation on orders from General Sokha and found a large pile of first-grade timber, said San Bunthan, the provincial military police chief.

“I sent about 60 military police to surround the area on Saturday night, and this morning we found more than 1,000 pieces of Sokrom and Koki wood in the forest,” he said. “We suspect the wood was dropped there to be transported to Vietnam.”

But provincial governor Sar Chamrong said they had not yet determined if any of the wood had been illegally sourced and if the company that owned the land, which he identified as the China Rubber Plantation, had done anything wrong.

“We will invite the company owners for questioning because we want to inspect the wood piled in the forest to find out if it is illegal or legal. If they don’t have documents for the wood, we will ask them to pay the tax and we will confiscate the wood as state property,” he said.

Illegal logging carries a prison sentence of up to five years, though the prosecution of wealthy businessmen suspected of being behind the illicit trade is unheard of.

Gen. Sokha has refused to speak with The Cambodia Daily about his new job.

Separate investigations by the London-based environmental rights group Global Witness in 2004 and 2007 have accused the general of being heavily involved in the country’s illegal logging trade.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

Authorities in neighboring Kratie and Tbong Khmum provinces raided a rubber plantation and a wealthy businessman’s warehouse in search of illegally logged timber on Sunday, days after Prime Minister Hun Sen announced the creation of a task force charged with rooting out forest crime in the area.

During Friday’s Council of Ministers meeting, Mr. Hun Sen said National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha had been placed in charge of the force, which will work with authorities in the provinces bordering Vietnam—Tbong Khmum in particular.

On Sunday, Council spokesman Phay Siphan said the task force was focusing its attention on two men in particular: Lim Bunna and Soeng Sam Ol. Both are “oknhas,” an honorific reserved for those who have donated at least $100,000 to the state.

“The two people feel like they are untouchable,” he said.

Mr. Siphan said the Interior Ministry had already gathered evidence implicating the two businessmen, though he did not know what it was. He also said authorities had raided warehouses belonging to each man on Sunday, though he did not know what they found.

In Tbong Khmum, provincial court prosecutor Hiek Sopheak confirmed that police, military police and Forestry Administration officers inspected a warehouse belonging to Mr. Bunna packed with logs.

“We are now working with the Forestry Administration to measure the wood in the warehouse, but we do not yet know how many pieces are legal and how many pieces are illegal,” he said.

“We did not arrest the oknha; we only checked the warehouse. The oknha did not prevent us from entering the warehouse to check the wood, and we are checking it now.”

Mr. Sopheak declined to comment on what led authorities to the site before hanging up on a reporter. The prosecutor made no mention of Mr. Sam Ol.

A report posted to the National Police website two weeks ago, however, accused Mr. Sam Ol of using a rubber plantation in Mondolkiri province to launder illegally logged wood and using illegal border crossings in Tbong Khmum to smuggle it into Vietnam.

The Environment Ministry said last week that it was investigating the report but refused to say whether a recent field report from the province had implicated Mr. Sam Ol, who has denied the accusations against him.

Mr. Bunna could not be reached for comment.

The new task force was also at work in Kratie on Sunday, where military police raided a rubber plantation on orders from General Sokha and found a large pile of first-grade timber, said San Bunthan, the provincial military police chief.

“I sent about 60 military police to surround the area on Saturday night, and this morning we found more than 1,000 pieces of Sokrom and Koki wood in the forest,” he said. “We suspect the wood was dropped there to be transported to Vietnam.”

But provincial governor Sar Chamrong said they had not yet determined if any of the wood had been illegally sourced and if the company that owned the land, which he identified as the China Rubber Plantation, had done anything wrong.

“We will invite the company owners for questioning because we want to inspect the wood piled in the forest to find out if it is illegal or legal. If they don’t have documents for the wood, we will ask them to pay the tax and we will confiscate the wood as state property,” he said.

Illegal logging carries a prison sentence of up to five years, though the prosecution of wealthy businessmen suspected of being behind the illicit trade is unheard of.

Gen. Sokha has refused to speak with The Cambodia Daily about his new job.

Separate investigations by the London-based environmental rights group Global Witness in 2004 and 2007 have accused the general of being heavily involved in the country’s illegal logging trade.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

pheap@cambodiadaily.com

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