A group of Cambodian NGOs threatened on Monday to expose more cases of forestry crime involving businessmen and the police, saying they were unshaken by a defamation suit filed by a top tycoon accused of illegal logging and land-grabbing.
Representatives of the five organizations told reporters Monday they have information about “at least 100 individuals” complicit in illegal logging, including high-ranking police officers who they said could be held liable for criminal charges of corruption and forest destruction.
The warning follows a report last week by an NGO, which was not among the five, claiming timber magnate Try Pheap, who has close connections with Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling party, had used land concessions granted by the government to facilitate massive illegal logging operations.
Two villagers quoted in the report—one of them a commune representative for the opposition party—have been summoned to appear in court on Friday in a lawsuit over the report.
Representatives from the five NGOs—Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), and three smaller local rights groups—charged at a press conference Monday that business groups such as those linked to Try Pheap have used land concessions to destroy forests.
Illegal logging in at least 11 provinces, including in national parks and protected forests, is threatening to wipe out the country’s forests, they said, urging the government to take swift action to curb the problem.
CCHR representative Chhim Savuth said the government should fight illegal logging by putting an end to the land concession system, through which private companies are granted land use licenses that often allow them to clear trees for development projects.
“I think there is no way to stop illegal logging unless there are no more land concession companies,” he said at the press conference.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan told RFA that the government has acknowledged the problem of illegal logging and made efforts to fight it by “working to secure the sustainability of natural resources.”
Last week’s report by the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force (CHRTF) said Try Pheap had accumulated land concessions amounting to more than seven times the area allowed by law and had blatantly flouted the conditions under which they were given.
Two days after the report, Sen San and Ouk Sambo, both residents of Kandal Stung district near where Try Pheap has a residence in Kandal province, received summonses to appear in the provincial court for the defamation lawsuit, the two told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Sen San, who is the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party chief for the district’s Trang commune, said he was concerned for his safety since receiving the summons.
“I am concerned for my security, that they will harm us,” he said.
He confirmed he had spoken with NGOs about Try Pheap’s company, but said he did not know where the company obtained its timber or to whom it had sold the commodity.
Ouk Sambo said she too was worried for her safety and that when authorities brought her the summons she had been forced to put her thumbprint signature on a statement that she could not read.
CHRTF Director Ouch Leng said the lawsuit was aimed at intimidating the villagers into silence.
“We are working with other communities to help them if they are in trouble,” he said.
In Wednesday’s report, CHRTF claimed that Try Pheap had amassed nearly 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) of economic land concessions ( ELCs), or seven times more than the 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) allowed to a single individual, through as many as 15 companies operating under his name or that of his wife, Mao Mom.
Nearly 1,500 families have been evicted from their homes since 2010 as a result of Try Pheap’s acquisitions, which have also encroached on protected forests, wildlife sanctuaries, and as many as 20 national parks, it said.
It also accused CHRTP of channeling around U.S. $1 million to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s family and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) for unspecified expenditures before the July 28 elections, whose results remain disputed despite official returns declaring the CPP as the victor.
A representative of Try Pheap’s company in Preah Vihear province denied allegations of illegal activity, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
“Our company does not log illegally,” said the representative, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that Try Pheap’s companies had rights to buy timber in eight provinces.
He called allegations about the companies’ practices false, and said that villagers were given adequate compensation when they were relocated.