Editorial | Articles about Cambodia | Khmer

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Cambodia: Can't See the Forest for the Thieves

The author, with Global Witness in November 2005, investigating a truck transporting
logs to Phnom Penh. The driver of this truck claimed he was carrying "mango trees"
(Global Witness photo).

Liam Cochrane | Bio | 06 Jun 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive

The latest report by illegal logging watchdog Global Witness has received the highest accolade an investigative NGO's work can receive from the Cambodian Government: It has been banned. The reason? It exposes the country's largest illegal logging syndicate and its links to senior government officials, including the prime minister. Plus, it details the way the army has been used as a log courier service for the secret trade with Vietnam and China. Now, as Cambodia's annual pledge-a-thon approaches, international donors are scrambling to react to accusations they haven't done enough to protect Cambodia's forests. Global Witness, the U.K.-based logging and blood diamond watchdog, cheekily titled its 95-page report "Cambodia's Family Trees" and printed a cover with framed pictures of Prime Minister Hun Sen -- and the logging kingpins related to him by marriage or political ties -- hanging from a barren tree.

The study took Global Witness three years of surveillance and interviews to complete and is perhaps the most extensive exposé of institutionalized corruption and natural resources pillaging to date. Among the main targets are Hun Sen's first cousin, Hun Chouch, Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Chan Sarun, and Forestry Administration boss Ty Sokhun. So it was little surprise the report ruffled some feathers. "If they [Global Witness] come to Cambodia, I will hit them until their heads are broken," was how the prime ,inister's brother and provincial governor, Hun Neng, responded to accusations that he and his wife were involved in the illicit trade.

Cambodia's Ministry of Information released a statement describing the report as "a personal accusation . . . to cause political conflicts in the country" and ordered the confiscation of any copies already in the Southeast Asian nation. But the fallout adheres to a long-running pattern of government behavior that is accurately predicted within the report.

"Hun Sen responds to even muted criticism by declaring that attempts to remove him will cause the country to fall back into conflict and instability," Global Witness wrote about the leader of a country still traumatized by the killing frenzy of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and the bitter civil war that followed. It's not the first time Global Witness has raised the ire of Cambodia's government. Global Witness was appointed by the government as the official monitor of illegal logging, but was fired from the job after its reports uncovered the involvement of military and political figures.

In 2004, copies of the group's report "Taking a Cut" were confiscated at the airport and several international staff were refused entry. Global Witness says the issues of illegal logging and political power are intertwined, with logging bankrolling Hun Sen's private armies, which in turn assure political supremacy for the one-eyed former Khmer Rouge leader, nicknamed the "Strongman."

Log Laundering

Cambodia's ruling powers have long used timber to fund their wars and, in more recent times, their political dominance. In the late 1990s, there was pressure from international donors to crack down on the plunder; the transport of logs was banned and illegal cutting slowed. But lucrative profits and lax laws meant that the chainsaws never really stopped. Over the years there have many creative schemes invented to bypass logging regulations.

The funniest involved logging permits given ostensibly for the purpose of building a platform so the country's parachute regiment could practice jumping off. The most shameless would have to be the tricking of monks into signing documents requesting valuable koki logs for building dragon boats to represent their temples in the annual boat racing festival.

The latest Global Witness report focuses on the use of economic land concessions -- usually plantations -- as a cover for illegal logging. In 2001, Hun Sen inaugurated the Tumring Rubber Plantation and the country's biggest logging cartel went to work.

The Seng Keang Import Export company was owned by Hun Sen's Rolex-wearing cousin Hun Chouch, his ex-wife Seng Keangg and Khun Thong, brother-in-law of the minister of forestry, the official ultimately responsible for protecting Cambodia's trees. Their "plantation" area was located inside the Prey Long forest -- the largest lowland evergreen forest still standing in Southeast Asia.

It is home to elephants, tigers and the Asiatic black bear, as well as burial grounds and resin trees tapped by locals for a modest income. But Prey Long's natural blessings are also its curse: The rich flora includes large amounts of commercial-grade and luxury timber. "It is unlikely they could have selected a more suitable location for their activities and Tumring duly became the center of the largest illegal logging operation in Cambodia," said Global Witness. The strategy was simple: harvest the most valuable trees within reach, move the timber inside the plantation's borders and claim it was felled in clearing. This neatly avoided various laws and a ban on the transport of freshly cut logs. The operation was big.

In 2005, community forestry activists counted 131 chainsaws and 12 mobile sawmills in the district. Timber was processed at an illegal sawmill at the appropriately named village of Khaos, or trucked out at night to another factory in the capital of Phnom Penh, most of it eventually heading for China. Between 2003 and 2005, China says it bought $16.2 million worth of plywood from Cambodia, with Seng Keang being the principle manufacturer of ply. Strangely, Cambodia's registered exports, and thus taxes, for that period were zero.

In November 2005, I accompanied Global Witness to Tumring and saw work gangs with chainsaws kilometers outside the plantation boundaries. They told us their boss, a notorious local thug known by his radio call sign "Mr. 95", paid $100 a month to the Forestry Administration in Khaos for each chainsaw in use; just the tip of the corruption iceberg. After dark we followed convoys of trucks heading to Phnom Penh. We reached some that had stopped by the side of the road and we got out to inspect. The owner of the truck told Global Witness the trucks contained "mango trees." I peeked inside and saw neatly cut logs a foot in diameter.

As we talked with the nervous driver, a pickup truck full of armed soldiers escorting the convoy tried to photograph us as they sped past, a dangerous prospect considering the death threats and beatings given out to Global Witness staff in the past. As Global Witness explains in their report, the complicity of corrupt police makes this racket possible, but for the military it's much more -- the profits from transporting illegally cut logs fund a small army, which in turn props up Cambodia's authoritarian rulers.

How to Fund a Private Army

Since an attempted coup against Hun Sen in 1994, Southeast Asia's longest serving premier has maintained an elite Bodyguard Unit of 4,000 well-equipped troops loyal solely to him. In addition, Hun Sen has a backup force of 2,000 soldiers, known as Brigade 70.

Global Witness says that under the leadership of business-turned-soldier Brigadier General Hak Mao, Brigade 70 has developed a lucrative business transporting logs and other contraband across the country. Hak Mao personally owns 16 trucks and has two depots in the capital -- one for commercial grade timber, one for luxury wood, according to Global Witness.

"According to one timber dealer in Phnom Penh, Hak Mao is able to deliver logs of all types according to order," says the report.

The U.K. watchdog estimates that fees from transporting logs and other smuggled goods such as liquor, cigarettes and even ice cream -- amounts to somewhere between $2 million and $2.75 million a year. A cut of this money -- at least $30,000 a month, says Global Witness -- is used to fund Brigade 70 and the Bodyguard Unit. "The Brigade 70 case highlights the direct linkage between Hun Sen's build up of loyalist military units and large-scale organized crime," says the Global Witness report, which was released from the safety of Bangkok on June 1.

Where's the Outrage?

The reaction from the international community has been muted. The U.S. and British embassies have said they share some of the concerns Global Witness has raised, but have not been drawn into the detail of the report. Some of Global Witness' strongest criticisms are directed towards the international donors who last year spent $601 million underwriting half the Cambodian budget, yet apply little real pressure for change.

"The donors have failed. They are basically spineless," Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness, told the Associated Press. "The message that Hun Sen gets from the donors is that they don't really give a damn." Hun Sen, however, does give a damn.

Despite receiving "no-strings-attached" aid money from the Chinese equal to all other donor contributions combined, Cambodia continues to seek the legitimacy that can only come from the support of developed nations.

And despite well-documented corruption and an increasingly one-party state, the international community -- much to the frustration of many NGOs on the ground -- continues to give the Cambodian Government that support. Cambodia's army -- the same force that transports illegal logs -- is receiving military assistance from Australia, China, Vietnam, and the United States.

The U.S. suspended military assistance after the 1997 coup, in which Hun Sen violently unseated his co-Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh. But after Cambodia recently signed the "Article 19" agreement, which promises not to send any U.S. citizens to the International Criminal Court, and began helping out with the "War on Terror" by some dubious arrests of Muslims, the United States is once again providing aid for Cambodia's soldiers.

Ironically, the U.S. embassy says a third of the $1 million military assistance that was earmarked for 2006 went towards trucks, spare parts and training. What makes Global Witness' report on forestry all the more compelling is Cambodia's burgeoning oil industry. Several companies -- including Chevron -- are currently exploring oil fields of considerable size just off the southern coastline.

But many see the sad fate of the forestry industry as a likely precedent for what will happen to the oil bonanza: The ruling elite and their cronies will get richer, the environment will be devastated and the people of Cambodia will receive next to nothing. It's the so called "oil curse" that has afflicted Angola, Chad and Nigeria, among others. To sound a warning to Cambodia's "kleptocracy," Global Witness has recommended international donors link non-humanitarian aid money to reforms and "test cases" to make an example of the powerful.

"There can be little doubt that a handful of competently investigated and prosecuted cases against senior officials, their relatives and associates would have a far greater impact on abuse of power and corruption than new legislation, as important as it is," said the report. The donor community will have to think fast.

The annual meeting at which bilateral donors and the World Bank will pledge next year's aid and discuss the development of the nation is scheduled for June 19-20. No doubt, the issues of illegal logging, corruption and misuse of the military will be somewhere on the agenda. The question is where do they go from there?

Liam Cochrane is a freelance journalist based in Katmandu, Nepal. He was formerly the managing editor of the Phnom Penh Post newspaper in Cambodia.

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