Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Royal Gendarmerie Arrests 11 Pursat Residents in Wildlife Crime Crackdown

Royal Gendarmerie forces have been deployed in Pursat province for a month-long operation to stamp out national resource crimes, as shown in a photo posted on Royal Gendarmerie Facebook page on March 12, 2024.
Royal Gendarmerie forces have been deployed in Pursat province for a month-long operation to stamp out national resource crimes, as shown in a photo posted on Royal Gendarmerie Facebook page on March 12, 2024.

Cambodia’s Royal Gendarmerie arrested 11 Pursat province residents Tuesday after the military force deployed nearly 300 of its officers to crack down on natural resource crimes. Officers confiscated 11 makeshift huts, nine motorbikes, one electrofishing device, 23 pieces of cut wood, 10 chainsaws and seven plant seedlings, according to a Thursday Royal Gendarmerie Facebook post.

General Sao Sokha, Deputy Commander of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, issued an order to launch the mission Tuesday. Royal Gendarmerie spokesperson Eng Hy said the operation is scheduled to last a month but may continue on longer.

“We do not know how long it will last [in Pursat], it depends on the work with Pursat’s authorities. We will bring the perpetrators to justice based on their illegal activities,” he said.  

Pursat’s authorities sought help from the military force in order to ensure that the province has capacity to prevent and effectively suppress deforestation and encroachment on state land, Hy said.

“Our commission was established to stamp out forest crimes in all forms and thus whenever the sub-national authorities request aid, we will send our forces,” he added.

The deployment comes after a Sunday meeting with officials from the Environment Ministry, the Pursat Environment Department and the Royal Gendarmerie regarding plans to prevent and crack down on illegal logging and state land occupation in Phnum Kravanh and Veal Veng, two districts in Pursat province which overlap with the Cardamom Mountain National Park. 

The national park was formed in July by combining two national parks along with over 100,000 hectares of reclassified land. The new park was part of a broader expansion of Cambodia’s protected areas across the country through sub-decrees issued on July 17, which environmental advocates warned could trigger land conflicts due to a lack of consultation with local communities.

The area has experienced tremendous forest cover loss, with a largely unchecked illegal timber trade and economic land concessions granted to private companies. Deforestation in the Central Cardamom Mountains National Park increased during 2022 with a loss of 835 hectares. 

Royal Gendarmerie forces confiscated logs, chainsaws and other materials during the operation in Veal Veng and Phnom Kravanh districts on March 12, 2024. (GMK’s Facebook)

The environmental outlet Mongabay reported that infrastructure development beginning in 2020 in the Cardamoms led to loggers and poachers exploiting the forested area. Cambodia’s conservation efforts have been criticized by advocacy groups such as Amnesty International for being plagued by corruption, as well as for targeting small-scale violations while ignoring large illegal logging operations.

On Tuesday the Royal Gendarmerie posted photos on Facebook of its forces lined up, weapons in hand and camouflage bags at their feet. 

“The Royal Gendarmerie will search for perpetrators and those involved in encroachment and occupation of state land to arrest and send them to court in accordance with the law in Cambodia,” the post reads. 

The Pursat provincial administration issued a letter Tuesday expressing its commitment to preventing and combating natural resource crimes in the two districts, warning perpetrators to immediately stop their activities. 

Pursat provincial Governor Khoy Rida said the mission is a collaborative effort to ensure the sustainability of ecosystems, biodiversity conservation and appropriate use of natural resources. High levels of deforestation resulting from illegal logging and wildfires in the area require national level support to stamp out crimes, he said.

“We are working with national and sub-national level authorities to protect the forest. As you know, when we lose the forest, we will experience climate change that would affect human beings immensely,” said Rida. “If there is no forest remaining, what will we do to restore it?”  

Rida stressed the importance of forest cover to sustain waterways which are needed in the construction of dam projects in the area. Two hydropower dams were approved by Cambodian authorities in late 2023, which researchers warn will further degrade the environment and lead to forest loss, according to Mongabay.  

The official operational map issued by the Ministry of Land Management shows different areas within Cardamom National Park where the crackdown will be carried out. (TVK Cambodia)

Environment Ministry spokesperson Khvay Atiya told CamboJA News that the deployment of forces in Pursat is part of larger ministry efforts to preserve natural resources in the country. The ministry has been working with the Royal Gendarmerie and the Anti-Corruption Unit to further strengthen the operations with local authorities at all levels. 

The ministry has taken specific measures since the new government mandate “to prevent and stamp out natural resource crimes,” with “the first being implementing law enforcement 100%, to stop the culture of releasing those who exploit forest natural resources,” he said.

The person who answered the phone number listed on the Pursat provincial environmental department Facebook page, who would not give her name, said the department director, Kong Puthyra, was unavailable because he was busy working on a campaign to combat forest crimes in Veal Veng district. 

Heng Kimhong, president at the NGO Cambodian Youth Network, said the collaborative operation between sub-national and national authorities is a practical way to effectively combat all forms of forest crimes. The effort is “the right thing to do” when there are high levels of deforestation, he said, and authorities must find the causes that lead to forest crimes. 

However, Kimhong said that if officials are corrupt and complicit in the crimes of illegal loggers, deforestation will continue “until there is nothing left.”

“If [officials] conspire with loggers and at the same time neglect working to combat those crimes, it does not matter how enormous an operation they launch or how much they increase expenditures to combat crimes, there will still be crimes happening.”