Soldiers, Police in Mondolkiri Under Investigation for Wood Smuggling

The top military and police officials in Mondolkiri province have opened investigations into some of their soldiers and officers after a news story claimed they were involved in timber trafficking into Vietnam.

Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Brigadier General Chhit Meng Sreng and provincial police chief Toch Yon said they had launched the probe after government-aligned Fresh News on Tuesday claimed soldiers and officers were helping timber smugglers break a January 2016 ban on timber exports to Vietnam.

“I read Fresh News today and immediately wrote a letter to the Company 1 commander calling him to meet me because we want to ask him if this information is true,” Brig. Gen. Meng Sreng said on Tuesday.

The Fresh News story accused Company I commander Kong Dam and one of his soldiers, Kim Chhong, of helping the smugglers. It also accuses Hoeun Sokna, police chief of Pech Chreada district’s Nam Lea checkpoint, and his deputy Samrith Noy of letting 20 to 30 cars loaded with timber into Vietnam every day.

Mr. Yon said he had opened an investigation into his officers as well, on orders from the provincial governor.

“[W]e will arrest them and send them to court if they are found to be involved,” Brig. Gen. Meng Sreng said.

The accused soldiers and officers could not be reached for comment.

The news story did not explain the basis for its claims. Fresh News director Lim Cheavutha said he was not familiar with the details of the story and referred questions to the outlet’s reporters in Mondolkiri, but declined to share their telephone numbers.

District governor Nguon Saran insisted the story was wrong.

“I recognize there is some timber smuggling by motorbike. But I deny the information from Fresh News, which says 20 to 30 cars cross the border every day,” he said.

The police chiefs of two other Mondolkiri border checkpoints were suspended for aiding timber smugglers in March.

Government officials have repeatedly claimed that the export ban has mostly halted Cambodia’s timber trade with its neighbor. But Vietnamese customs data indicates that hundreds of thousands of cubic meters worth tens of millions of dollars made it to Vietnam during the first quarter of this year alone.

The government is also investigating recent revelations by the Environmental Investigation Agency, a U.K. NGO, of an industrial-scale illegal logging operation between Vietnam and Ratanakkiri province during the past dry season.

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