WASHINGTON DC —
A parliamentary committee will look into allegations of illegal logging and timber exports, where big money and deep corruption have led to conflict, deforestation and tax fraud.
Opposition lawmaker Ho Vann, who leads the National Assembly committee, told VOA Khmer he is looking into evidence and documentation, following a report by the environmental watchdog Global Witness.
The investigation committee, formally known as Committee No. 10, is comprised of lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
It will investigate allegations of deforestation, tax evasion and corruption and will call government officials and others to testify at the National Assembly, Ho Vann said.
The committee will compare exports of timber and luxury timber of companies, compare those to tax records, and determine whether this constitutes “smuggling of illegal timber or corruption,” he said.
Global Witness has reported a major timber operation by the Try Pheap Group, which belongs to a powerful businessman of the same name. The group has exported millions of dollars in luxury timber, the group reported, despite a 2002 ban on the trade.
Ouch Leng, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Task Force, said a parliamentary investigation would help curb logging, make the forests last longer, and improve government transparency. If, on the other hand, licenses are granted for logging through confidentiality and favoritism, it is not sanctioned by the people or their government representatives.
“If it is given secretly, even the Council of Ministers does not know, or some of the governors do not know, about the license,” he said.
Try Pheap appears to have a luxury timber monopoly, with the support of the powerful members of government, including the prime minister, making it hard to take action against him, Ouch Leng said.
“Try Pheap’s company wanders around, cutting wide swaths of trees, and he depends on his power of having license from the government,” Ouch Leng said. “When we’ve asked to see his license for a new area, he said if someone wants to see the license go ask Lord God Indra, meaning Prime Minister Hun Sen. So he uses his power from Hun Sen to cut the trees all over the country.”
Meanwhile, if customs officials or other authorities interfere, they can be fired, Ouch Leng said.
The Try Pheap Group did not respond to requests for comment. Try Pheap has not clarified or disputed the Global Witness report. Agriculture Ministry officials have said the company does have a legal business and pays taxes.
Ouch Leng, however, said the company has defrauded the government with low claims of timber value for what is in fact luxury timber. That means the government is not getting the tax revenue it should.
Finance Ministry officials could not be reached for comment. Tax officials have said the collection in the country is improving, and, in March, companies will be expected to pay taxes for face fines.
Ho Vann said the investigation committee has 52 cases pending, and he said that the Global Witness report won’t be ignored, although it is a large, complicated and sensitive case.
Preap Kol, director for Transparency International Cambodia, said he supports the actions of the committee to investigate the report and to find out whether it is true, particularly as allegations continue and deforestation is ongoing.
Tax evasion means a loss of the national budget, as well, he said. Parliamentarians, who have immunity, can investigate better than other officials, he added.
“So there must be checks and balances, because this issue is a big problem that we’ve heard of many times,” he said.