Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Second timber tycoon charged amid expanding forestry crackdown

Tycoon Kong Kroeng
Tycoon Kong Kroeng, a prominent timber trader, and his son-in-law Math Naseat have been charged by the Kratie Provincial Court over suspected illegal timber trafficking in the province. Photo Supplied

Tycoon Kong Kroeng, a prominent timber trader, and his son-in-law Math Naseat have been charged by the Kratie Provincial Court over suspected illegal timber trafficking in the province.

Court documents say the two were charged on Saturday under the Forestry Law for collecting and exporting forestry products without a license in 2018 and 2019. The documents, issued by Investigating Judge Meng Tony, say they have been detained in the Kratie Provincial Prison while awaiting trial.

Each could face up to five years in prison and fined up to $24,000 if found guilty.

Oknha Kroeng and Naseat were arrested on Thursday evening after being questioned earlier that day by the National Committee for Forest Crime Prevention at the provincial military police headquarters.

Their arrest followed an inspection by committee head Sao Sokha – who is also the national military police commander – of several economic land concessions in the provinces of Tbong Khmum, Kratie, Stung Treng, Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri on August 5.

Sokha inspected nine warehouses belonging to Kroeng, but made no immediate arrests. The committee issued a summons against Kroeng and Naseat the following day.

Heng Sros, an investigator for the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, accused Kroeng of having extensive control over the trafficking of timber in Kratie.

“Tycoon Kong Kroeng opened an unofficial border checkpoint by himself to transport logs to Vietnam,” Sros said.

He said Kroeng buys timber from loggers who work in the province’s forests and ships them to Vietnam – to which timber exports have long been banned but from where environmental investigators have found records of ongoing imports of wood from Cambodia.

The tycoon has also threatened loggers who have sold their logs to other traders, saying he would enlist the help of local authorities to have them arrested, Sros claimed.

But Kroeng was far from the only trafficker in the area, and if no one else was arrested, his rivals would merely flourish in his place, the activist added.

“I want to send a message to the committee: If they really want to crack down on forestry crimes, they need to cooperate with court officials to capture other suspects who have gone into hiding since the crackdown on forestry crimes,” Sros said. “If they don’t find all the perpetrators who are smuggling logs illegally, they are merely performing a good act for those

[who get away]

; they won’t prevent forest crimes overall for the benefit of the nation.”

Sros said he had observed about 23 big trucks transporting wood every week to Vietnam earlier this year through several unofficial border crossings in Kratie. He also noted that traders were far more active during the dry season than the current rainy season.

The trafficking was comparable to what he had seen at the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 a year earlier – approximately 50 to 60 cubic meters of wood illegally shipped from the area to Vietnam every week, he said.

Lieutenant General Hong Vinol, deputy National Military Police commander, said Kroeng and Naseat had been sent to the provincial court on Saturday afternoon for questioning, but declined to comment in more detail. Provincial court prosecutor Keo Socheat confirmed the appearance but would not say more.

Brigadier General Eng Hy, the national committee’s spokesman, declined to comment on Saturday but on his Facebook page on Thursday praised the cooperation with provincial military police leading up to their arrest.

The two suspects were held at the provincial military police headquarters last week, according to a post by the national military police.

Suos Chamroeun, deputy Kratie military police commander, said his officers had merely cooperated with their national counterparts.

“We just provided a place for the national military police officials to work,” Chamroeun said.

The national committee embarked on a renewed crackdown on forestry crimes at the beginning of July, arresting timber tycoon Soeng Sam Ol on July 9 over allegations of illegal timber trafficking in Mondulkiri province.

Since oknha Sam Ol was arrested, at least 20 other people have been summoned for questioning in the crackdown, including provincial forestry administration officials. Three Chinese employees of a firm suspected of involvement have been arrested, as well as three local officials.

Dozens of heavy trucks suspected of being used to transport illegal timber were confiscated by the national committee. Some were dismantled piece by piece before being blown up with TNT.