cheung prey district, Kompong Cham province – Eyewitnesses have confirmed reports that military police traveling with Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema fired upon Kompong Cham forestry officials and police, when they tried to inspect a truck in their convoy that was suspected of carrying illegal timber on Thursday.
Kep Chuktema denied on Friday that military police traveling with him fired on local officials, alleging instead that the local officials fired on his convoy. He also filed a complaint with the Ministry of Agriculture.
The governor refused to speak to reporters Sunday and his telephone was turned off Monday when a reporter tried to reach him.
Than Sarath, deputy director with the Forestry Administration’s Public Affairs Unit, said Monday that the Administration was investigating. He added that he didn’t know why Kep Chuktema was leveling accusations at the forestry officials.
“Our agency didn’t want to stop the governor,” he said. “If the governor had just left the truck…it would have meant that the governor helps to crack down on illegal logging. But unfortunately the group fired upon our officers.”
Eyewitness accounts shore up forestry officials’ claims.
A woman who lives and sells sugar cane juice less than 100 meters from where the suspected timber-laden truck was stopped in Sampoang Chey commune, about 16 km north of Skun town in Kompong Cham, said that local officials had been waiting for the truck since 3 pm Thursday afternoon.
The truck finally approached at 6 pm, and officials moved a car into the road to block the truck, she said. At that point, about a dozen military police with AK 47 rifles got out of a pick-up truck in the convoy and began shooting into the air and at the tires of the car, she said.
“I was very frightened and I ran for cover,” she said.
Her mother, who also witnessed the incident but was afraid to give her name, added that her nephew collected about half a kilogram of bullet shells after the convoy moved on, which he then sold as scrap metal.
A Sampoang Chey forestry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said forestry officials, economic police and commune police stopped the truck, after reports that a truck loaded with illegal timber was traveling with the Phnom Penh governor’s convoy.
The official said the local team let Kep Chuktema’s car and about five others pass. Then forestry officials moved their car, a Toyota Camry, into the middle of the road to stop the suspect truck.
At least 30 other vehicles behind the truck also stopped, he said. Military police got out of two pick-ups, one behind the alleged timber truck and one in front, and began shooting, he said.
“They used power and we were afraid,” the official said. “They shot at the front tires of the Camry of the forest officials. We could not face them because we had no guns.”
After the shooting, local officials moved the car from the road and let the convoy continue without inspecting the truck.
Attempts to stop the truck had begun hours earlier in Preah Vihear, after reports that a truck was loading high-quality timber.
Officials questioned the driver and were escorting the truck to the local forestry office for inspection when the truck sped away, a Preah Vihear official said, meeting up with the governor’s delegation at a restaurant where they were eating lunch.
Security officers with the delegation came out of the restaurant to defend the truck, the official said. When the convoy drove away the truck was in the middle.
Officials in Preah Vihear notified Kompong Thom authorities, Than Sarath said. A roadblock was set up in Kompong Thom to stop the truck, but military police in the convoy threatened the those trying to stop the truck, he said.
Kep Chuktema said Friday that he had met with the Kompong Thom governor after the truck was stopped.
Kompong Thom Governor Nam Tum said he had only received a phone call from Kep Chuktema, who said forestry officials had stopped his convoy because they suspected a truck of carrying illegal timber.
Several officials in Preah Vihear, where the convoy originated, as well as Kompong Thom and Kompong Cham reported having seen as much as 25 cubic meters of luxury timber stacked in the back of the truck. The value of the timber depends on the type and where it’s sold, but a single truck-load could earn as much as $25,000 if taken to Thailand or Vietnam.
Kep Chuktema said Friday that the allegations of illegal timber should have been pursued in a lawful manner.
It is Forestry Administration protocol to stop a truck if officials receive a report that it is transporting timber illegally, Than Sarath said.
“If the governor wasn’t doing something illegal, why didn’t he let us inspect the truck?” he said, though he added that they cannot yet prove any connection with the governor.
According to Article 100 of the Forestry Law, any officials that exploit the forest and threaten Forestry Administration officers are subject to one to five years in prison and fines of $2,500 to $25,000.
Than Sarath said that he doesn’t think officials will be able to find the truck that supposedly carried the timber. He said the shooting has caused investigators to fear for their lives.
“Nobody wants to investigate,” Than Sarath said. “Because they worry they will be killed.”
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana)