Cambodian conservation officials spoke publicly for the first time on Monday about what they described as nearly three years of corrupt practices by their Vietnamese counterparts in facilitating the multibillion-dollar illicit trade in Siamese rosewood. But their complaint comes amid allegations from Hanoi that the rot is among Cambodian officials, not their own.
In March 2013, in response to dwindling global stocks of the luxury hardwood, all 177 member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) voted unanimously in favour of a proposal by Thailand and Vietnam to add Siamese rosewood to its index of protected species.
Listing Siamese rosewood was supposed to curtail international trade in the precious timber. But in the three years that followed, nearly 2 million cubic metres were registered in the CITES global secretariat’s database as passing from Cambodia to Vietnam. Experts estimate as much as 95 percent of it would have been bound for China, where the rosewood market is estimated at $25 billion a year.
In an email to the Post, Cambodian CITES management authority officer Suon Phalla said his office has issued just one export permit for Siamese rosewood since the species was listed, facilitating the transfer of a single tree to China.
Meanwhile, the Vietnamese management authority insists it has only approved imports from Cambodia when accompanied by a Cambodian export permit, a copy of which they say is sent to the Cambodian management authority for authentication before being accepted.
The Vietnamese shared with the Post copies of export permits from 2014 bearing the signatures of former and serving Cambodian Ministry of Agriculture, Forests and Fisheries (MAFF) secretaries of state for rosewood shipments totalling 1,100 cubic metres. They also shared PDFs of email exchanges in which Cambodian CITES officer Phalla appears to be authenticating the permits.
This week, Phalla strongly denied authoring the emails, pointing to a number of discrepancies that he said revealed them to be the product of forgery, or hacking “by Vietnamese illegal persons” or the Vietnamese management authority.
He claimed on Monday that the account one email was sent from has not been active since 2012. While the Post could not verify this claim, an email sent to that account on Sunday bounced with a message saying that the account did not exist.
In an email yesterday, Vietnamese CITES employee Phan Nguyet insisted her office had been receiving emails from that account as late as 2014.
Additionally, Phalla noted, one of the batches of permits, dated February 2014, bore the signature of former MAFF secretary of state Uk Sokhonn, who left his role as director of the Cambodian CITES management authority in October 2013.
Phalla shared copies of multiple pieces of correspondence between his office and the CITES Secretariat in Geneva and the Vietnam management authority dating back as far as October 2013, announcing Sokhonn’s retirement.
Nguyet said in an email yesterday that the first she had heard of Sokhonn’s resignation was March 2015. She did not respond to a further email asking about earlier correspondence with her office on the matter.
Attached to her email were PDFs of 2015 email exchanges purportedly between her office and Suon Phalla, in which Phalla authenticates a batch of 13 permits, only to write a month later asking that five be voided, as the applicant lacked sufficient stocks of Siamese rosewood to make use of them.
Reached by phone yesterday afternoon, Phalla denied authoring the emails, reiterating his belief that they had either been forged by the Vietnamese office or were the product of hacking by rogue businessmen. He declined that evening to allow a colleague to log into the email account in the presence of a reporter to verify whether the emails did indeed originate from that account, citing security concerns.
Ha Thi Tuyet Nga, director of the Vietnamese management authority, countered in an email yesterday that his suspicion was that “someone from CITES [management authority] of Cambodia had a deal with Cambodian exporter[s]”.
MAFF Secretary of State Ty Sokhun, whose signature appears on the majority of the contentious permits, said last night that he believed the Vietnamese management authority is “just trying to legalise their illegal timber from Cambodia” by falsifying the permits, but that he was awaiting the findings of an investigation by Interpol.
(Sokhun himself was accused in a 2007 Global Witness report of using his control over the Forestry Administration at the time to facilitate his father-in-law’s illegal timber racket.)
In an email yesterday evening, Interpol criminal intelligence officer Davyth Stewart confirmed that Interpol had liaised with both countries’ national police and “will continue to support them in follow up investigations”. He also noted that the permits were fakes, but who was behind them is subject to further investigations.
Julian Newman, campaigns director at UK NGO Environmental Investigation Agency, said on Monday that the Cambodian management authority had shown him many of the documents they had presented to the Post.
Acknowledging that it is impossible to verify the authenticity of email printouts, Newman said, “It seemed clear that they had asked the Vietnamese to seize the wood or the permits. It did seem credible based on those emails, but there are two sides to every story.”
Marcus Hardtke, a conservationist with 20 years’ experience in Cambodia, suggested in an email on Monday that, “This permit scandal might just be the tip of the iceberg.”
“What about the massive exports by the Try Pheap Group over the last years? What kind of permits were they using, if any?” he asked.
Even excluding exports smuggled without permits, 1.77 million cubic metres of Siamese rosewood were recorded in the CITES database as having crossed from Cambodia to Vietnam between 2013 and 2014.
A CITES document issued last month reported that traders in Vietnam pay between $40,000 and $59,000 per cubic metre, valuing the two years’ permitted exports at between $70 billion and $104 billion – more than three times Cambodia’s economic output for 2013 and 2014 combined.
However, demand for Siamese rosewood in China has dropped off sharply in recent months, according to NGO Forest Trends researcher Phuc Xuan, who said in an email that a timber trader outside Hanoi told him last Tuesday that 50,000 cubic metres of Siamese rosewood was still awaiting a buyer in his village.
The CITES Secretariat had not responded to requests for comment as of press time.