Smugglers Attempt to Truck Wood Under Sacks of Sugar

Authorities in Tbong Khmum province found more than 11 tons of rosewood hidden under bags of sugar on a truck queuing to enter Vietnam at a border checkpoint in Memot district on Tuesday, though everyone on board managed to escape.

Preap Karat, customs unit chief at the Finance Ministry’s customs department, said his officers were tipped off about the timber cache and coordinated with local military police to seize the truck at the checkpoint at around 11 p.m. He said that at least 10 people fled the truck and escaped through a nearby rubber plantation, leaving behind 11.2 tons of rosewood they had hidden underneath the sugar sacks.

“The truck drivers and the workers always escape because they are afraid of being arrested and put in jail,” he said. “We did not let them escape, but we could not stop them because we cannot see in the dark.”

Mr. Karat said the truck had a license plate and the tax on the sugar had been paid, but added that it would be up to the Tbong Khmum Provincial Court to track down the owners of the truck and its contents once it received the case report.

Prime Minister Hun Sen in February ordered an immediate halt to all timber exports to Vietnam as part of a broader crackdown on illegal timber stocks across eastern Cambodia, recognizing that much of the export was illicit.

Mr. Karat on Wednesday conceded that some was still getting through.

“I recognize that some wood is still being smuggled into Vietnam, but not as much since the government established the task force,” he said. “We can’t stop the wood smuggling 100 percent because the dealers sometimes sneak across at night when our officers aren’t working.”

He said Tuesday’s find was the first truckload of wood his officers had stopped at a checkpoint since the crackdown began.

Neang Sovath, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, said he had also been told by locals that the cross-border trade had subsided significantly, but was far from over. “I have not seen it with my own eyes, but local people have told me that they see vans transporting wood into Vietnam day and night, but they don’t see any police stop them because they pay the police to cross.”

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