Six sawmills in Preah Vihear province suspected of processing illegal timber were raided on Monday by police, military police and Forestry Administration officers who confiscated an undisclosed amount of luxury-grade wood product during their searches, an official said.
Provincial Court prosecutor Ly Lon, who led the investigation, said the six sawmills all had valid licenses issued by provincial authorities but were found to be making furniture and other products from illegal wood.
A seventh raid was carried out on a mill owned by Mao Sovan, a colonel and deputy commander of the provincial military headquarters in Preah Vihear. But the task force cut that investigation short after learning it was producing furniture for the provincial Cambodian Red Cross, Mr. Lon said.
“We took action against the six sawmills today because they were all exploiting illegal timber,” he said, adding that he could only remember the amount of illegal wood confiscated from one sawmill in Choam Ksan district, where authorities seized 33 cubic meters of beng, thnong and kaki wood.
The sawmill belonging to Col. Sovan was spared a full sweep after the task force learned that it had a contract with the provincial Red Cross to make furniture for a new luxury hotel under construction in Preah Vihear City, Mr. Lon said.
“We did not dare ask [Col. Sovan] for more detail regarding the processing of illegal wood at his sawmill because he received the right to produce furniture for a hotel being built by the Cambodian Red Cross, so we did not investigate [him] further,” he said.
The other sawmill owners were given one month to pay a fine or have their wood sold at auction, he added.
Yung Kimhean, executive director of the Cambodian Red Cross in Preah Vihear, confirmed the hotel was still being decorated but said he was not sure which companies were contracted to carry out the work.
“We are now decorating inside the building but I can’t comment because I don’t know whether Mr. Mao Sovan supplies furniture to the hotel or not,” he said.
On Tuesday evening, Mr. Lon called reporters to clarify information he gave earlier in the day.
“I want to correct what I said earlier and make clear that all the furniture made by [Col. Sovan’s] sawmill is legal and the furniture ordered by the Red Cross to equip their hotel rooms was purchased legally,” he said.
Lor Chann, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said Col. Sovan was widely believed to be trading in illegal wood in the province and commanded a reputation similar to that of notorious timber magnate Try Pheap.
“Provincial authority, especially the Forestry Administration, never take action against Mr. Sovan even though they have found he is dealing in illegal timber,” he said.
“Obviously, the prosecutor was leading authorities to take action today only on small sawmills but let Mr. Sovan go free because they are afraid to touch powerful people,” he said.