About 200 angry villagers in a timber-rich district of Stung Treng province stormed a local Forestry Administration office Monday and reclaimed vehicles impounded by officials there.
Siem Pang district governor Sy Suon said the unarmed villagers from Prek Meas commune’s Ta Kheng and Pong Kreal villages arrived at the office shortly before noon and smashed the padlock on the main gate before making their way inside to recover the vehicles, which had been used to cart illegally logged timber.
Police and military officials on the scene offered no resistance.
“I met them there and tried to ask them to respect the law,” Mr. Suon said. “They defied me, no matter what I said. They replied to me that they would bear their own responsibility with the law.”
Tension has been simmering for months in Siem Pang—the majority of which is carved into economic land concessions—with locals being held to account for chopping down relatively small hauls of luxury timber while timber tycoons manage to circumvent the law.
Forestry officials and military police personnel have confiscated vehicles used by villagers to log luxury timber and held them to ransom, demanding exorbitant and arbitrary sums of money for their return. A provincial court official said last month that this practice is illegal.
Last week, Ly Korn, chief of the Siem Pang Forestry Administration division, was removed from his position. No reason for his expulsion has been given.
Mr. Korn’s replacement, Tith Samnang, declined to comment on the villagers’ raid. However, his deputy, Sras Sarin, confirmed it had taken place.
According to Mr. Suon, villagers last Monday surrounded the office of Birdlife International, a conservation group near the Siem Pang district forestry office, and demanded confiscated equipment.
Three chainsaws were returned to the villagers to end the dispute.
Chheang Tola, chief of the Stung Treng Forestry Administration cantonment, said Monday that his office was working through the cases and deciding whether to charge the farmers.
One of the villagers who stormed the forestry office Monday, Thoeung Pang, 23, said he was driven by desperation to act.
Mr. Pang said he struggles to make ends meet without his primary piece of farming equipment and has no way to pay the $1,580 the forestry administration is demanding for his tractor.
“We were worried that we would be arrested [for storming the office], but we have no choice,” he said.