Police and military police forces in Ratanakkiri province have suspended night patrols mounted to intercept inter-provincial latex smuggling after gunfire erupted earlier this month, escalating what local authorities are calling the “rubber smuggling wars.”
“When they are smuggling they are shooting like it’s a Hong Kong movie,” Ratanakkiri Deputy Governor Bou Lam said last week.
“The war of the rubber smuggling is increasing,” Bou Lam said, adding that both the rubber smugglers and those trying to stop them are members of local armed forces units. It is no longer considered safe for officials to be on patrol in the current climate, he said.
The conflict has broken out between those trying to enforce a province-wide monopoly on rubber sales in Ratanakkiri and those transporting raw latex to Kompong Cham province, where rubber-tappers are assured of a far higher price.
One kilogram of latex currently fetches 1,600 riel in Ratanakkiri, but almost twice that price is now being offered in Kompong Cham, said Tai Seng, the Ratanakkiri businessman who is working to keep local rubber within the province.
Ten latex processing plants have gone bankrupt in Ratanakkiri because of the smugglers, said Tai Seng, adding that he does not plan on his company ending up in the same boat.
Tai Seng said that only blockading the inter-provincial latex trade will ensure that his 2,300-hectare concession of formerly state-owned rubber trees remains profitable, particularly as he pays the government $200,000 in tax each year.
The rubber-tapping families working on the rubber tree concession do so on the condition that they sell their produce to Tai Seng, but they are not honoring this contract, he said.
“We lost a lot of money this month because more than 200 tons of rubber were illegally smuggled by military police and soldiers,” Tai Seng said by telephone last week.
“I asked Ratanakkiri’s governor and some cooperating ministries to intervene…to stop the rubber smuggling activists. Nowadays the factories have no rubber in them,” Tai Seng said.
In late January, automatic weapons fire erupted as a joint police and military police patrol encountered several trucks driving in the direction of Stung Treng province, suspected of carrying a large haul of latex, said Dam Bou Keo, deputy provincial police chief in charge of security.
Unsure of who was shooting and from where, Dam Bou Keo said his patrol refrained from returning fire in the dark, though a complaint was filed at the court the following day.
“Our forces used to chase [rubber smugglers], but they never stop. They know many ways to escape through the forest,” Dam Bou Keo said.
With the encounters becoming more deadly, the night patrols were called off on Feb 6, he said.
Un Buntha, deputy of the domestic trade department at the Ministry of Commerce, said this week that free trade is respected in Cambodia, unless an exclusive contract has been agreed. “If people signed a contract to sell to the company they must sell to the company,” Un Buntha said of the rubber smuggling.
However, without a contracts law in place, it is difficult to resolve a dispute between those accusing of not honoring an agreement and those accused, Un Buntha added.
Nevertheless, “when you sign a contract or give your fingerprint, you must follow the agreement,” he added.
The dispute between Tai Seng and the province’s rubber smugglers is not simply based on the wording in a contract—it’s also about simple economics, said Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for local rights group Adhoc. A substantial price gulf exists between what Tai Seng is willing to pay for rubber in the province and what buyers in Kompong Cham are able to pay, he said.
“If people actually have a contract with Tai Seng, those people can’t break the contract. But the price gap is making people break their contracts,” he said.
Traders in Kompong Cham are offering double what Tai Seng is offering for rubber in Ratanakkiri, Pen Bonnar said.
“But Tai Seng may not be able to buy at the same price as the Kompong Cham middlemen, because Tai Seng claims he has to pay tax to the government,” he added.
With a small fortune at stake on both sides, the rubber smuggling war is likely to continue, and so are the casualties.
Last week, two vehicles were damaged when they were rammed by a truck belonging to Tai Seng that was being used in his late-night patrols, provincial military police commander Tuy Sim said this week.
The vehicles, however, were not smuggling rubber, and Tai Seng’s company has now to pay compensation to the passengers and the drivers, he said.
Tuy Sim strongly denied Tai Seng’s allegation that military police officers are providing armed protection to the smugglers.
“It is not true,” he said. “There are many smugglers from the police, soldiers and ordinary people. But it is not our military policemen.”
(Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong)