pursat province – Washing her face in a pond near her house in Stung Kambot village, Sun Sam leapt to her feet as the sound of gunfire and screeching car tires ripped through the early morning quietness.
A vehicle had skidded out of a side road and blocked the route of a car, while a second vehicle blocked the trapped car’s exit from behind.
Two men then approached the trapped car and opened fire on the occupants, Sun Sam claimed last week.
“I heard the shooter say ‘We hit them, we hit them,’” she said.
One hour later on the morning of Sept 22, Ham Bathea, 28, was dead from the gunshot wounds sustained in the shooting Sun Sam had witnessed.
Ham Bathea was just the latest victim in an escalating battle between illegal logging operations smuggling timber out of protected forests in the Cardamom Mountains through Pursat province and the authorities charged with protecting it.
Men Kim, a 78-year-old resident of Stung Kambot village in Bakan district, said the car chase and killing of Ham Bathea by armed Forestry Administration officials “was like something you would see in an action film.”
He was one of numerous villagers who saw the pursuit by the gun-toting Forestry Administration officials of the car carrying Ham Bathea and other alleged timber smugglers.
As the cars raced for 3 or 4 km, the forestry officials fired volleys of bullets from their weapons, AK-47 assault rifles, witnesses said.
It was the second time in the last six months that events in this part of Pursat province had taken a deadly turn.
In March, Pich Srey Mom, 27, was shot dead in Phnom Kravanh district a few kilometers away by a military policeman working alongside Conservation International officials during what officials said was an operation against smugglers of the m’reah prov tree oil.
Villagers in Bakan district said last week that the sound of gunfire is a regular nightly staple, along with an almost endless procession of cars stuffed with illegal timber speeding through their villages in the dead of night.
“They come through here,” Men Kim said. “Maybe 20 to 30 of them [cars] per night. We are afraid of these men,” he said.
Those who smuggle the timber out of the mountains in modified family cars, avoid the authorities by using secondary routes like the village roads through Bakan district, said Seng Bunra, country director for Conservation International.
These remote roads and villages, which eventually connect with major roads, have the least concentration of forestry officials, he said.
Illegal logging in the northern part of the Cardamom mountains is a “systematic and sophisticated” operation, Seng Bunra said. Since June, 70 tons of illegally cut wood have been confiscated, he said.
The scale of the problem is evidenced at the Forestry Administration office in Pursat town where more than 60 confiscated cars and numerous trucks used by smugglers now lie rusting. Several sheds are packed with tons of assorted confiscated timber and wood, all of which was seized in the past two years, a staff member on duty told reporters last week.
But as smuggled timber continues to cross the Cardamom mountain region, the authorities are struggling to keep up, Seng Bunra said.
Forestry officials “should never carry guns,” he said, adding that the law is very strict on this issue.
Five of the six forestry officials involved in the shooting of Ham Bathea are currently in custody and awaiting trial.
Thav Vary, who is acting as a lawyer for the five arrested officials, said she was in the process of interviewing her clients and could not comment on the case.
Ven Lonn, provincial monitor for local rights group Licadho, believes the Forestry Administration is out of control and the killing of Ham Bathea was not an accident.
“The rule of law has no death sentence in Cambodia,” Ven Lonn said. “The tactic of the forestry officials in this case was not to capture: They shot to kill,” he claimed.
Ty Sokun, national director of the Forestry Administration, said his men were just doing their job. “We are sorry that this incident took place but we won’t surrender [to the illegal loggers],” he said.
Ty Sokun added that the car in which Ham Bathea was a passenger was being used to block his officials from chasing other loggers.
“My officers in Pursat [province] have a very difficult mission,” he said. “There are so many illegal loggers.”