Two days after a platoon leader in Mondolkiri accused soldiers from Kratie of pointing their weapons at his men in order to free a group of suspected illegal loggers from Vietnam, two of the military’s most senior officials on Thursday said they were unaware of the incident, while the commander of the Kratie troops drastically altered his account of events.
According to the commander of Mondolkiri’s Platoon 1, Thorn Mengsrea, the incident occurred on Tuesday night shortly after his soldiers detained four Vietnamese loggers in Keo Seima district. At about 9:30 p.m., he said, a military detachment from Kratie sounded his men, seized their weapons and took custody of the loggers, Mr. Mengsrea said on Wednesday, adding that he had reported the incident to his superiors.
Nay Toeung Loeng, the Kratie provincial military commander, said on Wednesday that his troops had confiscated the weapons because the Mondolkiri soldiers had strayed across the provincial border, and that the Vietnamese men—who he acknowledged were loggers—were set free under an “agreement” with authorities in Vietnam’s Binh Phuoc province.
Contacted Thursday, Defense Minister Tea Banh and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces spokesman Chhum Socheat said they were unaware of the incident and knew nothing about any such agreement.
However, General Socheat later called a reporter back to say that he had checked with the provincial military commanders in Kratie and Mondolkiri, and that both denied that any Vietnamese had been involved in the altercation.
“The story,” he said of his conversation with Brigadier General Toeung Loeng, “is that two soldiers or military police maybe got drunk at dinner and then had some conflict, so they escaped into his area, where the Kratie soldiers found them, took their guns and sent them back.”
According to Gen. Socheat, Mondolkiri provincial military commander Chhit Meng Sreng, who on Wednesday accused Kratie soldiers of protecting Vietnamese loggers in Cambodia, on Thursday said the standoff “never happened.”
“He said there was a small incident with local people, but that there was no Vietnamese involved,” Gen. Socheat said, adding that he would nevertheless investigate the case further.
Pressed on the inconsistencies, Brig. Gen. Toeung Loeng said his initial account had been fabricated by reporters.
“We saw two Cambodian soldiers in our territory, so we detained them and contacted Mondolkiri soldiers to bring them back,” he said. “No Vietnamese.”
The incident took place in an area that is rich with ostensibly protected forests and has seen a number of clashes between security forces and logging gangs, with the two groups often overlapping.
In May 2014, Keo Seima district governor Sin Vanvuth had a gun put to his head by a military police officer who arrived on the scene of a timber bust with the aim of reclaiming an SUV full of luxury timber.
The military police officer, Sou Marith, escaped. There have been no reports of his arrest.
Contacted Thursday, Mr. Vanvuth declined to comment on the volatile situation around the convergence of Vietnam, Mondolkiri and Kratie.
“If you want information, come here and see for yourself,” he said.