On Tuesday evening, police released a damning report supporting claims that the business magnate Kith Meng’s firms have been using a hydropower dam project as a front for illegal logging
Cambodia’s National Police made a shock move on Tuesday by accusing one of the country’s most powerful businessmen of involvement in large-scale illegal logging, though it remains unclear if they intend to take any legal action in the case.
National Police posted a report on their website detailing how a subsidiary of Kith Meng’s Royal Group, Ang & Associates Lawyers, were using a licence entitling them to clear 36,000 hectares of forest for the reservoir of the Lower Sesan II hydropower dam to launder illegal timber felled outside the concession boundaries.
According to the report, “forest destruction in Sesan district and timber smuggling for sale in Vietnam is happening in the name of the company clearing the Lower Sesan II reservoir, which belongs to Oknha Kith Meng, but authorities ignore and overlook it and do not prevent it”.
The logging claims, which follow on years of reports from journalists, environmental groups and local officials about Sesan II being used as a timber laundry, came as no surprise to Marcus Hardtke, an expert on forest issues with over 20 years’ experience working in Cambodia.
“Every major dam project has been a front for massive illegal logging and timber laundering over the last years”, with state institutions routinely fighting over “who gets a larger piece of the loot”, he wrote in an email. “It appears the National Police is ‘negotiating’ to get a larger share of the profits”.
Dubbed “Mr Rough Stuff” in a cable from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh, Kith Meng presides over a vast business network that spans multiple industries and as the head of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce has often joined Prime Minister Hun Sen on trips abroad.
Given Meng’s connections, the National Police’s decision to call out Kith Meng’s illegal operation was “unusual”, Hardtke said. “Targeting a large-scale Hun Sen crony operation is rather unusual. But it is already late in the game; perhaps the Sesan illegal logging scheme is coming to an end anyway.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s supposed ban on all timber exports handed down in January 2016 has had little if any impact on the ground, with recent Vietnamese customs data revealing a surge in exports that is comparable with historically high levels.
The customs data came days after a report by the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency revealed how Vietnamese traders, backed by the Gia Lai provincial government, “pay millions of dollars in bribes to Cambodian officials to open up logging areas and smuggling routes in Cambodia”.
Over the course of 55 days between early December 2016 and January 2017, approximately 110,000 cubic metres of logs were exported from the O’Tabok Community Protected Area in Ratanakiri province across an “unofficial crossing with no checkpoint” to Vietnam, the report said. After the report was released, the government announced that it was already investigating the allegations.
National Police have yet to explain how they plan to address the allegations against Kith Meng, or why they just decided to publicly bring the illicit operation to light.
Kirth Chantharith, the National Police spokesman, could not be reached on Wednesday; Kith Meng said he was in a meeting before hanging up; and Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said he “didn’t have that information” when asked about the report.
Hardtke said he doubted there would be any “legal follow-up from this report”.
“Perhaps a new agreement will be reached behind closed doors.”