Thirty-three Cambodian nationals were arrested for illegally logging rare rosewood trees in Thailand, where they are currently awaiting trial, officials said Wednesday.
The arrests marked a long-called-for shift in tactics by Thai authorities: In the past, Thai soldiers and border police have often dealt with illegal Cambodian loggers by shooting them dead.
“On August 27…Thai authorities apprehended 33 Cambodians in connection with illegally cutting down trees in Wathana district, Sa Kaeo province, Thailand,” a statement issued Wednesday by Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry says.
“The 33 Cambodians are aged between 17 and 42 and hail from the provinces of Battambang, Siem Reap, Kampot, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey.
“Now the Thai authorities have provisionally detained all 33 Cambodians in Sa Kaeo province pending their trial. For this case, Cambodia’s consulate general based in Sa Kaeo province, Thailand, has found lawyers to defend them.”
The consulate general, Neth Sary, said Wednesday that the Cambodians were discovered with chainsaws and rosewood logs.
“The 33 Cambodian citizens were arrested both for illegally crossing the border into Thailand and illegally logging in the Thai forest. Now they are still in custody at the Thai police station,” he said, adding that he had secured lawyers for some of the suspects but was still searching for more.
Soum Chankea, a monitor for rights group Adhoc in Banteay Meanchey, said his organization could not help the Cambodians because they were being detained in Thailand, but welcomed the fact that the loggers were not fired upon.
“It is the first time that Thai border police arrested a lot of them without shooting,” he said.
“Before, they shoot and they kill or injure them instead of arresting them.”
Cambodians regularly sneak into Thailand in search of rosewood, which can fetch hundreds of dollars per cubic meter in Cambodia and thousands of dollars abroad. Although poor villagers are usually the ones who do the actual logging, rights groups say Cambodian officials working along the border are complicit in the illegal trade.
Dozens of Cambodians are shot and killed by Thai forces every year, despite the Cambodian government’s insistence that its western neighbor arrest and prosecute the offenders instead.