A newly formed government task force going after illicit timber stocks in eastern Cambodia searched properties tied to Try Pheap and Kith Meng on Wednesday, powerful businessmen who have remained legally immune to the reports of illegal logging that have swirled around them for years.
But the dragnet could ironically result in a windfall for Mr. Pheap, who has exclusive rights to buy up all the illicit timber that authorities seize. And after past crackdowns that have done little, if anything, to dent the country’s rampant illegal logging trade, environmental rights groups remain wary of whether this latest gambit will prove any different.
National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy said on Wednesday that authorities were combing through two of Mr. Pheap’s properties in Stung Treng province.
“We are now checking a warehouse in Stung Treng City and a location in Siem Pang district. We saw a lot of wood in both places, but we don’t know how much yet because experts with the Forestry Administration are still measuring it,” he said.
Chhoeun Tola, who heads the Forestry Administration’s Stung Treng cantonment, said Mr. Pheap was not at the site, but his staff furnished authorities with records of their stock.
Mr. Tola said the task force was also inspecting the construction site of the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam, where Mr. Meng has the rights to fell and sell all the wood inside its planned 36,000-hectare reservoir.
“We are not only checking the warehouse of Try Pheap; we are inspecting many places in Stung Treng City and other districts across the province,” he said.
The flurry of activity in Stung Treng follows raids on several other plantations, warehouses and unclaimed timber piles in public forests across Kratie, Mondolkiri and Tbong Khmum provinces since Sunday, where authorities are still taking stock.
Mr. Pheap and Mr. Meng are the most high-profile businessmen to be caught up in the crackdown thus far.
Mr. Meng is chairman of the Royal Group, which is partnered with Australia’s ANZ Bank in ANZ Royal, one of Cambodia’s largest commercial lenders. In Stung Treng, people living around the Sesan II’s planned reservoir say they have been watching loggers launder timber through the area for several years. Mr. Meng has declined to comment on the allegations.
But no businessman has been hit with more accusations of illegal logging over the past few years than Mr. Pheap, who owns several economic land concessions.
Environmental rights group Global Witness says it tracked illegal loggers moving large volumes of timber through his properties in Ratanakkiri province during a monthslong undercover investigation in 2014. And as with Mr. Meng in Stung Treng, a 2012 report by the NGO Flora & Fauna accused Mr. Pheap of using his rights to clear a dam reservoir in Pursat province to launder hundreds of millions of dollars worth of rare and protected Siamese rosewood.
Mr. Pheap’s staff have repeatedly denied the allegations.
Despite the new task force’s well-publicized raids, accompanied by its own photos of officials hard at work taking the measure of tall piles of timber, officials have yet to say whether they have found a single log that was ill-gotten or off the owner’s books.
Authorities seize illicit timber from loggers and fine them for it regularly. But the prosecution of the wealthy businessmen accused by rights groups of driving the trade is virtually unheard of.
By law, those caught stocking timber without a permit can be fined up to three times the market value of the wood. Illegal loggers can go to jail for up to five years. As for any timber seized by the state, the Forestry Law says it must be put up for public auction.
In 2014, however, the Council of Ministers ordered the ministries of agriculture and environment to give Mr. Pheap the first crack at buying as much of the seized timber as he wants. So any timber seized during the current crackdown could end up with Mr. Pheap.
Bun Uy, a secretary of state at the council who signed the 2014 order, said on Wednesday that it still stood.
“The paper is still in force, no change,” he said.
Mr. Uy said he had no idea whether the order was a breach of the law. “I don’t know,” he said, “because it is out of my role.”
Josie Cohen, a land campaigner for Global Witness, said the government’s deal with Mr. Pheap “is clearly in contravention of the Forest Law and therefore illegal. This means that the timber obtained and sold through this process is illegal.”
She called the government’s current probe of some of his properties a positive move.
“If the task force wants to be taken seriously, they must investigate the allegations made against Try Pheap and the government officials enabling his logging network to function and prosecute all of those found to be responsible,” Ms. Cohen said.
“The current system, where they simply face a fine or confiscation of the timber, is clearly not proving enough of a deterrent, as can be seen by the rapid destruction of Cambodia’s forests.”
Satellite data shows that Cambodia has faced one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world over the past dozen years, much of it from clear-cutting in and around the large land concessions.
Marcus Hardtke, who has worked with a number of environmental protection groups in Cambodia since the mid-1990s, said it was too soon to tell whether the latest sweep of timber stockpiles was a “crackdown or shakedown.”
“If this has been triggered by a business dispute between logging cartels, these inspections are setting the stage for renegotiations. And based on the outcome of these arrangements, illegal timber can easily be declared ‘legally sourced’ by the stroke of an expensive pen,” he said.
“In that case, the only results in terms of forest protection are disrupting the flow [of] the illicit timber for a short time period and scaring smaller, independent loggers and smugglers.”