CHBAR MON District, Kompong Speu province – Property records show that a military police general in Kompong Speu province still owns a warehouse where authorities recently seized a cache of unlicensed timber, disproving claims by senior officials attempting to distance their colleague from the alleged crime.
The general’s daughter, to whom he supposedly transferred the warehouse, and who owns the family’s timber trading business on paper, also appears to have little knowledge of the company’s actual operations.
Local authorities raided the property of Lieutenant General Chheng Long, a deputy chief of staff for the Kompong Speu provincial military police, on March 12, finding a truck packed with unlicensed timber inside the warehouse next to his three-story mansion. The day before, authorities seized another truck, also loaded with unlicensed timber, whose driver said he had just come from the warehouse.
Authorities impounded the two trucks and a total of 54.3 cubic meters of wood, including 484 pieces of luxury-grade Thnong, one of the rarest and most precious species in Cambodia. A truck driver, Yim Sokphearom, and manager, Tao Chinton, were arrested.
Authorities initially said they were seeking Lt. Gen. Long, who was not at home during the raid, for questioning. The next day, however, the same officials said they were no longer looking for the general and were instead searching for his daughter and son-in-law, Long Sreyneang and Sy Sar, respectively.
At the time, National Military Police spokesman Eng Hy and Chbar Mon district military police commander Thy Chhay both said ownership of the warehouse had at some point been transferred to Ms. Sreyneang, but refused to provide any evidence.
Government property records obtained last week by Cambodia Daily reporters show that the warehouse and the land it sits on still belong to Lt. Gen. Long.
Records at the provincial cadastral office show that the walled-off compound at No. 1 National Road 4, a total of 3,127 square meters, was occupied in 1988 and registered to Lt. Gen. Long and his wife, Chhoeun Chhunheang, in 2009. It also shows that none of the land has ever been transferred to anyone else. Records at the district cadastral office, also viewed by reporters, show the same thing.
Dy Nan, the chief of Kandorl Dom commune, said property transfers have to go through his office, too, and that Lt. Gen. Long has never asked for one.
“I am sure that the house and warehouse belong to Chheng Long and that the couple [his daughter and son-in-law] is not involved with the timber because they have never come to me to ask to transfer property,” he said.
The commune office did register a timber trading business to Ms. Sreyneang, the daughter, last year. The approved application lists the address as No.1 National Road 4, the same address owned exclusively by Lt. Gen. Long and his wife.
Mr. Nan said the general’s daughter had moved away with her husband after their marriage some years ago.
In the time since, Mr. Nan said, the general has become one of the area’s better-known timber traders.
“We used to see Chheng Long transport timber to his warehouse day and night with a few vans, but he has expanded his business with three trucks in the last three years,” he said. “I have not dared to report it to district and provincial authorities…because I am scared of his power, because he is provincial military police.”
A report on this month’s arrests and seizures prepared by the Forestry Administration and submitted to the Kompong Speu Provincial Court on Wednesday backs up the commune chief’s claims. It names both Lt. Gen. Long and his son-in-law among five suspects.
“The suspects Yim Sokphearom and Tao Chinton confessed that they were hired to transport timber for Chheng Long,” the report says.
“They confessed that they collected forest products and transported timber without permits from the Forestry Administration for Sy Sar, Chheng Long and Veasna Phanthana,” it adds. “After questioning, Kompong Speu military police requested warrants from the Kompong Speu Provincial Court to take action against the three suspects—Sy Sar, Chheng Long and Veasna Phanthana.”
It accuses all three, along with the driver and manager, “of collecting and transporting the logs…without permits.”
The report does not explain Veasna Phanthana’s role or relationship to the others, and it makes no mention of Ms. Sreyneang.
Ou Phat, a deputy prosecutor with the provincial court, said on Sunday that the Forestry Administration report had arrived and that a warrant had been issued to summon Lt. Gen. Long for questioning. But he claimed the general remained at large before hanging up.
On Thursday, however, Lt. Gen. Long’s boss, provincial military police commander Chou Sarun, said he was already back on the job. “Mr. Chheng Long has returned to work and we are now implementing the procedures,” he told a reporter over the telephone. He could not be reached again on Sunday.
Eng Hy, spokesman for the National Military Police, declined to comment on the case on Sunday, referring all questions to the provincial court.
Officers at the provincial military police headquarters also said the general was back on the job when reporters showed up on Wednesday. But they said he had left for Phnom Penh to attend a meeting. Lt. Gen. Long could not be reached through a phone number they provided.
At the general’s house in Kompong Speu, a three-story mansion fronted by a set of towering classical columns, Ms. Sreyneang, the daughter, said she ran the depot and insisted her father was not involved.
“I run the timber depot,” she said, producing an invoice on letterhead reading Long Sreyneang Depot Woods.
“He’s not involved in the timber business,” she said of Lt. Gen. Long. “My father and my mother gave a part of the land to me…. We registered it with local authorities.”
But Ms. Sreyneang did not know which authorities. “My parents did it,” she said.
Asked how many trucks her company had, she said she was “not sure.” She also said she had no idea the manager, Tao Chinton, had been arrested, nor did she recognize the name. “Don’t ask me anymore because I don’t know,” she said.
But Ms. Sreyneang insisted the company’s operations were all aboveboard and claimed that the timber-loaded truck authorities seized at the warehouse on March 12 was not hers.
“The truck that parked in front of my warehouse did not belong to me,” she said. “The truck could not start, so they parked it just for a while to fix it.”
(Authorities say the truck was parked inside the warehouse.)
Ms. Sreyneang said she did not know why the driver who authorities arrested on March 11 said he had come from the warehouse or why her father and husband were suspects, and finally refused to take more questions. “I am busy, so I want to stop giving answers,” she said.
Chea Hean, director of the Natural Resource and Wildlife Protection Organization, a local NGO, said Lt. Gen. Long probably had the business registered under his daughter’s name for cover, possibly anticipating the day he would need to deflect blame.
Mr. Hean said he spent a few days in December posing as a logger in Kompong Speu’s Oral district to identify the major players of the local timber racket. He said the general had a second timber warehouse in the district and played a leading role.
“I pretended to be a worker carrying wood and loading tractors for him, and I saw him and his son-in-law negotiate with military police and police on the road to clear the way for the wood,” he said. “I saw him order workers to carry wood and put it on the trucks.”
“I am sure Chheng Long is involved in the timber trade because he is responsible for the transportation,” he said. “The property belongs to him.”
During his investigation, Mr. Hean said he also learned from Mr. Sokphearom, the driver authorities recently arrested, that from Oral the timber would head to Kampot province, where soldiers helped smuggle it across the border to Vietnam.
“I know Chheng Long transports wood to Vietnam because his driver told me so when he got back,” he said.
Other locals also said they knew the general as a timber trader, and even traded with him.
The owner of a local timber shop said he never dealt with Lt. Gen. Long’s daughter or son-in-law, but had bought timber from the general himself on one occasion last year—about 20 cubic meters of Phdiek, a relatively common second-grade species, sawn into rough planks.
He said the general used to run a retail shop much like his own out of the warehouse next to his mansion, but stopped selling locally after he started shipping to Vietnam a few years ago.
“I know Chheng Long was running an illegal timber business for a long time,” said the man, who asked that his name not be used for fear of reprisal from the general.
“The timber he got came from Oral district, and the timber he got from the forest was illegal,” he said. “People from Oral have told me they got wood for Chheng Long. Everyone in Oral knows that Chheng Long deals in illegal timber.”
The district has become a well-known gateway for illegal loggers heading into the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary, which stretches into the eastern edges of the Cardamom Mountains and their forests.
Authorities claim to have all but stamped out large-scale illegal logging and sealed off Cambodia’s border with Vietnam to timber traffic since the government ordered a crackdown and imposed a blanket ban on all timber exports to its eastern neighbor in January last year. They have dismissed Vietnamese customs data, obtained and analyzed by the U.S. NGO Forest Trends, that show tens of millions of dollars worth of timber continuing to get through.
But the evidence is piling up.
Earlier this month, two police officials in charge of a pair of border gates in Mondolkiri province were suspended from their jobs as part of an ongoing investigation into how six Vietnamese loggers arrested last month were able to get into Cambodia and planned to get out with their contraband.
In December, Cambodia Daily reporters saw soldiers responsible for protecting the border in Kratie province running an illegal timber yard, buying luxury timber from locals and selling it on to visiting buyers from Vietnam.
But the involvement of a high-ranking military police officer would be especially embarrassing for the government, which has put the National Military Police in charge of the illegal logging crackdown it started last year.
Embarrassing, but not surprising, at least not to environmental rights groups.
Over the years they have tracked the Cambodian timber racket’s close ties to the country’s police, military police and soldiers. No group has done more to expose the relationship than Global Witness. The U.K.-based group was Cambodia’s designated forest monitor until its critical reports got it kicked out of the country.
In 2004 it released “Taking a Cut,” a damning report detailing a network of state institutions and top security officials greasing the illegal logging trade in the Phnom Oral Wildlife Sanctuary. Global Witness said military police were paid to provide protection to loggers moving timber out of the sanctuary, and that National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha, the man now in charge of the government’s illegal logging crackdown, used his house to launder much of the wood.
In 2015’s “The Cost of Luxury,” after another undercover investigation, Global Witness accused one of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s own personal advisers, timber tycoon Try Pheap, of running perhaps the largest illegal logging operation in the country with impunity.
With connections like that, rights groups say, it is little wonder the government’s efforts to tackle illegal logging almost never net any officials.
Mr. Hean, the NGO director who went undercover to investigate Lt. Gen. Long’s operations, said the general’s properties inextricably tied him to the illegal timber flowing through them.
“The court should condemn him for collecting forest products and confiscate all his properties,” he said. “He got them with forest crimes.”
© 2017, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.