Local newspaper Deum Ampil has published a letter from the NGO Conservation International that it claims proves slain environmental activist Chut Wutty took bribes from illegal mreas prov tree loggers in the Central Cardamoms more than a decade ago.
The January 2003 letter, written by CI’s then-country director David Mead, suspended Wutty from work with CI as it investigated allegations he had taken payments from the illegal industry.
Mreas prov can be processed into the drug precursor safrole.
But Jake Brunner, a former CI staffer copied on the letter, said that while he was out of the country at the time, the issue between Mead and Wutty had to do with “advances he had received from CI” and accounting procedures.
“That was the issue, I think, not corruption,” Brunner said.He added that the Forestry Administration had engaged in an “aggressive campaign” to get Wutty out of the Central Cardamom Protected Forest program.
“I think the letter David wrote was a pro forma kind of defence just to show that CI took [their allegations] seriously and weren’t dismissing the accusations because David and Wutty were close.”
Wutty was shot dead in 2012 while documenting illegal logging.
Marcus Hardtke, a German conservationist who worked in the area at the time, and later worked with Wutty, said that the CI investigation ended up finding no evidence of bribe-taking on Wutty’s behalf.
The FA “really wanted to get rid of him because he was disturbing their business,” he said.
FA chief Chheng Kimsun said he was too busy to speak yesterday.
Conservation International country director Seng Bunra said that the group could not release details about Wutty’s time there because of company policy.
“Our official position is that we don’t have anything to add but that we’re sad that the focus of this has been to defame someone who was doing good work when he passed away and we are sure his family is suffering greatly.”
Deum Ampil’s claims are the latest to be made against Wutty since he was praised by US President Barack Obama last month. Government spokesman Phay Siphan recently called him a “great log trader”.
The government has seized back more than 12,000 hectares of land previously awarded to seven companies as economic land concessions (ELCs), according to a letter from the Council of Ministers.
The letter, which was obtained by the Post yesterday, was sent late last month to the governors of Preah Sihanouk, Kampong Speu and Koh Kong provinces, and Environment Minister Say Sam Al.
It explains that licences awarded from 2006 to 2011 for eight ELCs in the provinces would be revoked and the land put under the ownership of the Environment Ministry.
Sub-decrees issued earlier this month to three of the companies, Vimean Seila Co, Ltd; Soun Vattanak Co, Ltd; and Chan Rot Group, confirmed the decision.
While the letter did not specify reasons for the seizure, Chhit Sokhum, governor of Preah Sihanouk province, where five of the ELCs were located, said the companies had failed to develop the land.
“The commission went down and saw the companies’ names and saw that they had not developed anything or they had developed little, so we seized the land for preservation,” he said.
“It’s a waste of government time and tax when the companies do not develop” the land, he added.
According to Sokhum, the land will be preserved, and not awarded to other companies.
Buon Narith, Preah Sihanouk provincial coordinator for the rights group Licadho, welcomed the seizures and urged the government to take a stronger approach to all ELCs.
“We see some companies logging and clearing forest and then they do not develop anything,” he said.
Vann Sophath, land reform coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, agreed.
“Most of the companies [use] their concessions as a front for logging because the land of ELCs [is] full of the forest and natural resources. The first target of those companies is logging and exploiting natural resources for their interest and income,” he said.
In a directive last month, the government vowed to strengthen how ELCs are awarded and regulated.
In what may be the largest documented case of timber laundering in recent Cambodian history, one of the country’s most powerful tycoons, Try Pheap, allegedly made more than $220 million in unreported profit by illegally logging rosewood over a three-year period in the Cardamom Mountains, official figures suggest.
The evidence was included in an unpublished 2012 report by a major international conservation group, a leaked copy of which was obtained by the Post. The report provides the first substantial documentation of large-scale illegal logging by the Try Pheap Group of Companies.
According to the findings, which were never released publicly due to the gravity of the allegations, Pheap’s MDS Import Export Company, owned by his wife, Mao Mom, used permits for clearing timber within the Stung Atay hydropower dam reservoir and three concessions in the 330,000-hectare Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary as cover to move protected rosewood felled outside those areas.
The report concludes that Pheap transported more than 16,000 cubic metres of rosewood out of the Cardamoms in southwestern Cambodia using the permits to clear the dam site, despite an estimated reservoir zone stock of just 1,000 cubic metres.
Based on data on Pheap’s sales collected by the Forestry Administration – MDS bought the wood from brokers and sold it for $20,000 per cubic metre to Vietnam and China – the report says a “realistic estimate” of his illegal profits from the operation would be $227 million.
“On the evidence of the reviewed licences, the MDS Company has … taken 16,135 [cubic metres] of rosewood out of the O’Som inundation zone. This figure is a conservative estimate of the total amount of rosewood taken out as it is for transport through the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary only,” the report says, referring to the reservoir area.
Officials have claimed the logging was legal, pointing to Pheap’s licence to clear the dam site, but what they could not account for is the sheer amount of timber taken out of the Cardamoms by MDS.
“If they said that profit is illegal, I don’t understand,” said Thun Sarath, cabinet chief at the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries.
A short distance away from O’Som, on a pitch black August night in Pursat province’s Kravanh district, a Post reporter was chased along narrow dirt tracks by men on motorbikes armed with assault rifles, who locals said worked for MDS and had been tipped off to the arrival of journalists by a network of spies whose job it is to protect brokers who are working for Pheap.
The reporter had found a camp where dozens of workers were felling rosewood. Known locally as kranoung, rosewood is considered critically endangered in Cambodia, while the country’s forestry laws list it as a legally protected species.
According to UK-based environmental watchdog the Environmental Investigations Agency, soaring demand for the wood in China and Vietnam has fuelled its continued exploitation and effectively allowed Pheap to use his connections to sidestep legal constraints in what could be a billion-dollar black-market trade.
Conservationists have long documented – and opposed – the attempts to exploit the Cardamoms’ rosewood stocks, considered a stronghold for the species.
But countering the conservationists’ work and the long-time resistance of indigenous communities that rely on the forests are organised criminal “nexuses” controlling the trade, according to the government-commissioned 2005 Independent Forest Sector Review.
At the centre of this trade lies O’Som district, which straddles the Central Cardamoms Protected Forest and the Phnom Samkos Wildlife Sanctuary, a haven for the illegal timber trail since the Khmer Rouge controlled the logging roads to Thailand.
Between the Stung Atay and Russey Chrum hydropower dams lay some of the largest estimated stocks of rosewood left in the country, according to the report.
Pheap signed the logging contract for the Atay dam reservoir zone – covering less than 5,000 hectares – with the China Yunnan Corporation on February 16, 2007, it says, and in March 2009, the Council of Ministers issued a directive confirming that the contract had been granted to MDS. That May, MDS was given the go-ahead to log in the area, with the proviso that the timber must not be exported.
“Timber trading brokers set up businesses under the protection of MDS-employed … soldiers next to the MDS compound in [O’Som],” the report notes. “Logging roads went into the [protected areas] rather than the inundation zone.”
In April 2010, the Ministry of Environment clamped down on the trade, setting up a checkpoint to monitor every truck and catalogue how much timber came out of the area.
That December, MDS was awarded two economic land concessions (ELCs) in the Samkos sanctuary’s conservation zone, and later a further concession near the Thai border in Thmor Da district. With Environment Ministry rangers monitoring the road out of the Atay dam site, the report notes, MDS began to use the Samkos concessions to launder the wood.
“While some rosewood [was] taken out under company licences under the assumption that it is being taken from the hydropower dam inundation zone, other timber is also being taken directly to illegal furniture factories who quickly transform it to furniture which is legally allowed to be exported,” the report says. In 2011, “Prime Minister [Hun Sen] visited the area, at which time MDS and the brokers covered up all stockpiles of rosewood and hid illegally logged timber.”
Pheap’s wife, Mao Mom, declined to comment on the evidence. Eang Sophaleth, spokesman for Hun Sen and a secretary of state at the Agriculture Ministry, declined to comment. “It’s not in my jurisdiction. I would advise you to contact the FA,” he said, referring to the Forestry Administration. Chheng Kimsun, director of the FA, did not respond to requests for comment.
Numerous attempts to seek comment from Try Pheap representatives were unsuccessful.
The relationship between the illegal logging trade, the government and conservationists is complicated. In 2009, Ouk Kimsan, the man appointed by the Forestry Administration to ensure Pheap did not abuse his licence to transport the timber from the Atay dam, was arrested for attempting to take two trucks laden with illegal timber to Vietnam.
“Ouk Kimsan worked for [Conservation International] and [the Forestry Administration] and facilitated the licences for the company to export rosewood from the Stung Atay hydropower dam inundation zone that MDS has the contract to clear. He was jailed in Koh Kong but is now out and working as a senior director in MDS Export and Import,” the report says. Kimsan could not be reached for comment this week.
Marcus Hardtke, a long-time supporter of the late forest activist Chut Wutty, who was gunned down in 2012 while investigating illegal logging in the Cardamoms, said the Atay case study was just the tip of the iceberg.
“The [Try Pheap] logging cartel has expanded, and their operations can be found in all provinces with valuable timber resources. It has become a key driver of large-scale illegal logging,” he said. “The nature of these operations shows that they have support from the highest level in government. The cartel has become untouchable, with the relevant authorities acting more like subcontractors than regulating agencies.”
Rise of a tycoon
Little is known of Pheap’s early days before he rose to become one of Cambodia’s most powerful mandarins. In August 2004, he was granted the title of okhna, a Khmer word that historian David Chandler has said is derived from the Sanskrit for the Hindu god Shiva, but which now carries a $100,000 price tag – a payment made in “donations” to “development projects” linked to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
In 2005, Pheap went into business with arguably the country’s most powerful tycoon, Senator Lao Meng Khin, and forged ties with Cambodia’s military leadership.
Meng Khin and Pheap are listed as directors of an iron mining company on the border between Stung Treng and Preah Vihear provinces – Hongfu-Try Pheap Mining Development Construction – which is part owned by former RCAF commander General Pol Saroeun and a state-owned Chinese firm.
As well as forming close business ties with Chinese investors, Pheap has also cultivated strong relationships with Vietnamese companies – and the leadership of the CPP.
In 2009, MDS was granted a licence to clear-fell a concession granted to Singaporean firm HLH Group, which has previously been linked to Hun Sen’s sister, Hun Sen Ny. Shortly after the deal was penned, Pheap was made an adviser to Hun Sen with the rank of secretary of state, according to a government decree.
Despite having two concessions in Mondulkiri province cancelled in January 2011 due to lack of investment, just a month later, Pheap was granted two 70-year leases covering 18,855 hectares in Virachey National Park in Cambodia’s remote northeast, an area between the Laos and Vietnam borders known as the Dragon’s Tail, where he later built a casino.
In early 2011, Pheap “donated” cash and goods worth more than $130,000 to Environment Ministry staff and the local CPP branch in the Boeung Per Wildlife Sanctuary in Preah Vihear province – and was granted a rubber concession there shortly afterwards. Last year, the Post reported that Kimsan – the former CI official in charge of keeping tabs on Pheap’s logging in the Cardamoms – had taken over as head of Pheap’s operations in Boeung Per.
‘Land of development’
In Stung Treng province’s Siem Pang district last month, a logger working for Pheap had just arrived and set up camp under a tarpaulin amid the hammering rain. Resting gingerly on a crutch supporting his missing leg, which he lost fighting for the Khmer Rouge, the 57-year-old logger from Takeo province said he has followed Pheap’s brokers for years, having just moved from Pursat’s O’Som district.
“I have been working on logging since the Khmer Rouge regime,” he said.
The logger, who requested anonymity, was one of a vanguard of “anarchic” workers the Post witnessed arriving in Siem Pang last month – several sharing the back of trucks bearing the logo of the Try Pheap Group – who each day sell their haul to brokers working for Pheap.
On the road into the district, Post reporters passed dozens of trucks bearing the code used by Pheap’s companies, which smoothes their passage through any checkpoints they might encounter: 1168, a Chinese “lucky” number said to mean “the road to good fortune”.
The road used by Pheap’s trucks was built with Chinese aid money but has since lost its surface under the weight of the hulking vehicles and is now little more than a slippery river of mud. MDS had assigned several tractors to patrol the road and dig out the trucks that get stuck. One of Pheap’s drivers told the Post he had been stranded on the remote stretch of road with his over-laden lorry of thnong wood – another protected species – for two days and nights.
Villagers, loggers and local officials told the Post that Pheap had emptied their villages of men, who spend every day journeying across the Srepok River to log thnong in the reservoir of the Lower Sesan II dam, where Pheap has also allegedly been laundering timber from logging operations in Ratanakkiri province, according to forest campaigners and locals.
The Post followed several of Pheap’s trucks from Siem Pang to an MDS holding area nearby and also witnessed several of the trucks parked in the grounds of an under-construction luxury hotel in Stung Treng town that the tycoon is building.
By the side of the river in Siem Pang, a stout woman was busy organising the latest load of thnong to be taken to the MDS collection point down the road, ready for the company’s vehicles to arrive at nightfall.
“We work very hard, but we have to pay the [police] officers, too, or they will arrest us,” she said. “But if I don’t do that business, someone from outside will come to do it, so we have to join to destroy the trees with Try Pheap.”
Over the past two years, Pheap has been granted several licences to collect and transport timber across the country, making him the “preferred bidder” at government auctions, according to a conservationist who requested anonymity.
“We see a drive to monopolise the trade in luxury timber, with FA crackdowns on independent operators,” Hardtke said. “As the rosewood stands are largely exhausted, the [Try Pheap] cartel has switched to other species, like thnong, and will continue down the species list until Cambodia’s remaining forests are reduced to shrubbery.”
In February and March 2013, Pheap was given the rights to collect all timber logged in ELCs in Ratanakkiri province and to establish yellow vine processing plants in the Atay dam area. Then, in April, Hun Sen praised Pheap for donating nearly $250,000 to build a Buddhist temple in the prime minister’s home commune of Jiro in Kampong Cham province. The next month, he won a contract to transport all timber from ELCs in 15 provinces and the concession for the casino in Ratanakkiri.
More than 1 million hectares of land was granted to foreign and local companies through ELCs during the last CPP government – an area twice the size of Brunei – with most clustered near the country’s largest remaining forest reserves. The Forestry Administration told investors last year that local demand for timber would continue to rise until 2018.
A European Union delegate, who co-chairs the Technical Working Group on Forestry Reform, said Pheap’s licences, which are up for review next month, had been discussed at the past two meetings.
“They addressed the issue of the licences for the collection of timber and the licences given to some companies to buy timber from other ELCs,” the EU said in a statement. “The EU strongly believes transparency in the attribution of public markets, including ELCs and timber, is a key element of good governance.”
Pheap was granted a $3.4 million licence to confiscate almost 5,000 cubic metres of mostly luxury wood from the FA – about $700 per cubic metre – last year. Using his concessions in Ratanakkiri, Pheap was accused of illegally exporting large amounts of luxury wood from concessions owned by Vietnamese subsidiaries of the Hoang Anh Gia Lai Company, better known as HAGL.
Pheap got a new licence to “destroy” all remaining “waste wood” in FA and Ministry of Environment offices and permission to “keep what remains” earlier this year. Most of the wood taken by Pheap so far – estimated at more than 1,500 cubic metres – is thought to be luxury species.
“This policy of ‘collecting confiscated timber’ is a rather old trick in the region to circumvent legal and policy frameworks,” said Hardtke. “In the past, the Cambodian government issued ‘old log collection permits’, meaning there’s no cutting involved, just the collection of previously felled trees. Needless to say, it was abused for years, covering several hundred thousand [cubic metres].”
In its 2000 Structural Adjustment Credit assessment, the World Bank called Cambodia’s forests the country’s “most developmentally important natural resource”.
But a damning indictment of donor institutions’ inability to curtail illegal logging, a 2013 World Bank investigation, found that $4.1 billion of its global investments in forestry over the past 10 years have done little to benefit local communities in developing countries. The bank, which declined to comment, is now considering funding land concessions in Cambodia once more, after a three-year moratorium on loans.
Despite the mounting evidence of illegality in the forestry sector, officials are seemingly oblivious or unwilling to offer any practical solutions.
At the opening of a sugar factory in Kampong Speu province in 2012, Hun Sen praised the economic progress the government had nurtured since the civil war. “We have transformed this pitiful land,” he said, “soaked in blood and tears in the past into a land of development.”
A journalist was fatally shot early yesterday morning in Kratie province while investigating illegal logging near the border with Mondulkiri province, leading police to detain four people for questioning yesterday afternoon.
The reporter, Taing Try, 48, was employed by the Khmer Journalists Democracy (KJD), an independent publishing network. In 2012, however, he faced charges in Kratie for allegedly extorting luxury wood from a man he accused of being involved in the illegal timber trade.
Though that charge was ultimately dropped, one police officer said yesterday that he had seemingly continued the practice and ultimately paid for it with his life.
Try was travelling with eight other journalists in three cars late on Saturday night when they came upon several ox carts loaded with wood and led by a timber trader identified by KJD president Sok Sovann as a man named Hieng, whom he alleged was a police officer in Mondulkiri’s Keo Seima district.
Hieng allegedly shot Try while the reporter’s car was stuck in mud on the road, Sovann said.
After carrying out the shooting, he added, the attacker got back into his Lexus and drove off; however, he flipped his car and had to escape on foot after climbing out through the window.
Another journalist in the car with Try, San Sith, managed to escape unharmed, Sovann said. Others were also unscathed.
“A police officer in Sre Chhouk commune in Keo Seima district, named Hieng, who shot Try, is a timber trader,” Sovann claimed. “For a long time, only people in positions of power were in the timber trade because ordinary people did not dare to compete with them.”
However, Sovann – who said that he had intervened on Try’s behalf in the 2012 case – said yesterday that Try wasn’t well liked in the province, though not for his tenacious reporting. The journalist had a reputation for “negotiating” with the subjects of unflattering stories, Sovann said, declining to elaborate on what that entailed.
Four suspects were arrested and were being questioned at Kratie Provincial Court yesterday afternoon, according to provincial prosecutor Ty Sovinthal.
“Now we have arrested four suspects who we believe were involved in the shooting,” Sovinthal said. “Two of them committed the crime and have a gun and own a car.”
Sovinthal declined to name the suspects yesterday, but a police officer in Snuol district, who declined to be named because of the ongoing court proceedings, said that police had identified the suspect as a military police officer from Mondulkiri’s Sre Chhouk commune. The police officer said Try may have been in business with the shooter, but did not provide any evidence to support this.
“[Try] was called [by the suspect] to get money and he was shot at the scene. After the shooting, a car belonging to the shooter was left at the scene turned upside down,” he said.
Snuol district police chief, Chan Soktim, and the district military police chief, Ul Chhay, declined to comment.
“We suspect that this murder was planned a few days ago as [Try] tipped off the district prosecutor to confiscate timber [from the loggers],” he said.
Heng Phearak, provincial investigator for rights group Adhoc, said the group’s preliminary investigation had found that Try had been killed after arguing with a timber dealer.
“Based on the initial investigation, we found that he went to cover forest crimes and the timber businessman was angry with him and shot him,” he said.
The killing and abuse of journalists under murky circumstances is not unheard of in Cambodia, and rights groups yesterday moved to condemn yesterday’s shooting as well.
“Journalists reporting on sensitive environmental issues, especially the rampant illegal logging trade, are all too frequently targeted with reprisals in Cambodia,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative, who called on Try’s killers to be brought to justice.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called on the government to commit to end impunity for the perpetrators of violence against journalists like Try and Hang Serei Oudom, who was found dead in 2012 after reporting on illegal logging.
“There needs to be a serious and impartial investigation of his murder,” he said. “Journalists should not have to fear bodily harm or death for reporting the news.”
Minister of Cults and Religion Min Khin has been summonsed for questioning in the National Assembly over speculation that the government plans to sell the Buddhist Institute to the owner of NagaWorld casino, an opposition lawmaker said yesterday.
Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Lim Bun Sidareth, secretary of the National Assembly’s religious affairs commission, said fellow opposition lawmaker and commission head Yem Ponharith had issued the request.
“We want clear information on whether [Khin] has sold the location,” Bun Sidareth said. “Have they sold it? Have they leased it? Because the casino and the government are saying different things. That’s why we need real answers from the minister so people can know what is really going on.”
As NagaCorp has carried out the expansion of the NagaWorld casino complex in Phnom Penh in recent months, speculation has mounted that the Buddhist Institute, situated next door, is under threat.
The rumours prompted Buddhist monks to take to the streets in protest last week.
Although the government has denied it will relinquish the land, Philip Lee, chief financial officer of NagaCorp, told investors and analysts in August that the company has further development plans that would force the institute to be relocated.
Khin, who has been called to appear with a number of colleagues, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Founded in 1930, the institute has been a centre for the preservation and development of Cambodian culture and was the nation’s first major publisher.
A five-day protest aimed at demanding an apology from Vietnam for comments made by a former embassy spokesman wrapped up yesterday. But while the rallies brought petitions, flag-burning and even an alleged death threat, it seemed to bring demonstrators no closer to their goal.
This week’s protests are just the latest action to be taken since ex-spokesman Trung Van Thong said in early June that the former Kampuchea Krom provinces in the Mekong Delta belonged to Vietnam long before being officially ceded by colonial power France in 1949.
Yesterday, hundreds of protesters gathered in Freedom Park and marched along the streets, handing out petitions calling for a boycott of Vietnamese products. Outside of the Vietnamese Embassy, demonstrators set fire to flags in what they said was a show of anger at the lack of apology.
One of the protesters, Roeun Nen, said she was disappointed that the days of action had brought no tangible result.
“I will continue protesting until an official apology is made publicly,” she said.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the protests had done nothing in fracturing the relationship with Vietnam.
But Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Association, said that despite not receiving an apology or government support, the protests had been a success as they had avoided violence and attracted more participants.
“Cambodians now dare to do something against the yuon government to ask them to apologise,” he said, using a word for Vietnamese often seen as derogatory.
Setha also accepted responsibility for the flag burning.
Earlier in the day, Setha said he received an anonymous phone call from someone speaking Vietnamese who threatened to kill him if he did not stop protesting.
But he vowed to continue leading demonstrations until Vietnam apologised.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that while authorities had taken a tolerant approach to the five-day demonstration, the activities of those involved had been closely monitored.