Six Cambodian men arrested for clearing state-owned land on Koh Rong, Cambodia’s second-largest island off the coast of Preah Sihanouk province, have claimed they were hired to do the work by a third party, officials said.
The men, aged between 19 and 50, had been staying on the island for about a week, clearing land “day and night,” before they were arrested on Wednesday morning at about 10 a.m, according to Noun Bunthol, head of the provincial intersectoral division.
It is unclear how much of the forest they had cleared because they had been working in multiple locations to first mark boundaries, he said.
Under questioning, the men claimed that they had been hired to do the work and built a hut deep inside the forest, he said.
“Now we are searching for the owners who hired them to come,” he said.
Officials believe that two masterminds—separate from the six arrested—were behind the work, with Mr. Bunthol identifying one suspect as Chou Chak from Kompong Speu province.
Mr. Bunthol said those behind the crime were attempting a land grab to claim ownership once the work was done, in order to then sell on the land.
The six arrested were held at the provincial military police headquarters on Wednesday night before appearing in court on Thursday, and are due back in court again today for further questioning, said Lim Bunheng, provincial court spokesman.
Mr. Bunthol said it was the first time that people caught clearing state-owned land had been arrested on the island. Previously, offenders were educated about their actions and released, he said, but the measures were “too weak,” so officials were implementing stricter responses to protect the island.
“Koh Rong has great natural beauty and we want to keep it that way forever,” he said.