Nearly 100 timber traders stormed Kratie town military police headquarters yesterday afternoon in an attempt to liberate two vans filled with confiscated timber, according to military police spokesman Eng Hy, whose account matched footage published online.
At 11pm the previous night, military police and Forestry Administration officials executing a warrant issued by the Kratie Provincial Court intercepted a convoy of 10 vans loaded with wood bound for Vietnam, according to provincial military police commander Phat Sopheak Veasna.
The convoy halted abruptly, causing one van to rear-end another. A doctor at the provincial referral hospital said the driver of one van was admitted that night with a serious chest injury, his wife with minor injuries, and his assistant with serious injuries to the chin and forehead.
Approximately 30 drivers and passengers from the remaining vans exited bearing sticks and iron bars to face-off with officials, but seeing they were outgunned, instead emptied their cargo to block the road, Veasna continued.
As officials attempted to remove the lumber blockade, the nine vans whose drivers were uninjured attempted a getaway. Eight escaped while one was immobilised following a collision with a Forestry Administration vehicle.
The following day, the timber traders descended on the provincial military police headquarters demanding the vans and their cargo be returned.
Video footage released on local media outlet Fresh News shows a large crowd first wheeling one van out through the military police compound’s front entrance. The entrance is then blocked by a blue and white military police vehicle, which the crowd simply drags out of the way, allowing the second van to be wheeled out after it.
“Put simply, they stole the evidence. The vans are gone,” Veasna said, adding that he was preparing a report to be sent to the provincial court today which will name 10 individuals, identified through photos of the incident, accusing them of damaging state property and tampering with evidence.
Deputy provincial prosecutor Hak Horn said the court will summon individuals suspected of involvement one by one for interrogation once he receives Veasna’s report.
“I have taken the photos as evidence. A criminal offence was committed by many people, and the forestry crimes have not even been accounted for yet,” Horn said.
Veasna said the crowd was insisting that the confiscated timber was only low-grade material to be used as supporting posts for pepper trees, but that this was not the case.
“In fact, it’s not pepper posts. It is number one [luxury] timber that has been cut like pepper posts. They were transporting it to sell in Vietnam,” he said.
Seng Sokheng, secretariat coordinator of NGO Community Peace-Building Network, said that while it was good to see authorities cracking down on the illegal timber trade, they should be more even-handed in doing so.
“We want to see the government respect the law and not only catch the people who have no power. They should arrest the powerful [people] and tycoons and send them to jail,” Sokheng said.
Provincial Adhoc coordinator Din Khanny noted that there is a lack of transparency in the policing of forestry crime and that many timber transporters are intercepted but later released after paying a bribe.
Yesterday’s commotion has precedent. In January, police in Preah Vihear released a community representative from detention after protesters blocked the road in front of the provincial hall with 10 tractors.
In 2012, 500 Kratie province villagers successfully sought the release of a village representative with the help of a roadblock.