Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) soldiers from Kratie province surrounded a platoon from Mondolkiri on Tuesday night in order to free a group of Vietnamese men who had been detained on suspicion of illegal logging, a military official said Wednesday.
Members of Mondolkiri’s Platoon 1 had been waiting along the side of the road for a translator shortly after apprehending four Vietnamese men in the province’s Keo Seima district when the soldiers from Kratie showed up and surrounded them, according to Thorn Mengsrea, the platoon’s commander.
“The group of soldiers pointed AK-47s at my five soldiers, took the Vietnamese people and ran away,” Mr. Mengsrea said, adding that he left the scene before the rogue soldiers arrived, at about 9:30 p.m.
After receiving a call about the incident, Mr. Mengsrea, who holds the rank of lieutenant colonel, said he immediately deployed more troops to the area, but that the Kratie soldiers and Vietnamese men had already disappeared.
“I have reported this event to the upper level and we should let them manage this case because soldiers from Kratie province gave protection to illegal immigrants,” he said.
Mr. Mengsrea said he and five other soldiers from his platoon apprehended the Vietnamese men earlier in the evening as they drove a pair of trucks through Sre Preah commune, a hotbed of illegal logging that abuts Kratie’s Snuol district to the south.
Meas Pheap, the commander of Regiment 204, which is based in Snuol, said he was unaware of the incident on Tuesday night.
Nay Toeung Loeng, the Kratie provincial RCAF commander, however, offered a vastly different account, saying the incident occurred because the Mondolkiri soldiers had strayed into his province, prompting his troops to confiscate their weapons.
“We had the authority to confiscate the guns of the five soldiers from Mondolkiri province because they entered the territory of Kratie,” Brigadier General Toeung Loeng said. “We arrested the four Vietnamese, but we have sent them back home.”
He said the Vietnamese men had illegally crossed into Cambodia to log luxury wood, and were taken from the Mondolkiri soldiers and sent home without charge because the military in Kratie had “an agreement” with authorities in Vietnam’s Binh Phuoc province, which shares a border with both Mondolkiri and Kratie.
Brig. Gen. Toeung Loeng said he had since “compromised” with military officials in Mondolkiri and returned the confiscated weapons. RCAF Commander-in-Chief Pol Saroeun declined to comment on the incident. Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat could not be reached.
The area where Mondolkiri, Kratie and Vietnam converge—including the Seima Protected Forest— has lately become a flashpoint for clashes between logging cartels and security forces, with the line between the two often blurred.
Contacted Wednesday, Mondolkiri RCAF Commander Chhit Meng Sreng said Kratie military personnel were prominent players in the illicit timber trade. “Those people give protection to Vietnamese nationals so they can log trees in Khmer territory, but I don’t want to talk about this case because they are not working [in Mondolkiri],” he said.
Brigadier General Meng Sreng himself made headlines in February last year when military and provincial police raided his home and rubber plantation, discovering more than 50 pieces of luxury wood. A week later, however, with officials seemingly reticent to prosecute the military heavyweight, the case was closed.
“This case is over, because when I threatened them with a lawsuit, the authorities involved apologized to me,” Brig. Gen. Meng Sreng said at the time.