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Monitoring Group Indicts, in Detail, Cambodia's 'Elite' Deforesters

Cambodia's forests are being stripped clean by an intricate network of Cambodian elite, the forest monitoring group Global Witness reported Thursday, indicting in a detailed report a roll call of illegal loggers and smugglers and the men and women who abet them.

"Cambodia is run by a kleptocratic elite that generates much of its wealth via the seizure of public assets, particularly natural resources," Global Witness said in a statement published alongside its 96-page report, "Cambodia's Family Ties," on Thursday. "The forest sector provides a particularly vivid illustration of this asset-stripping process at work."

Global Witness, which was officially ejected from the country in 2006, spent more than three years investigating the networks of illegal logging. The resulting report, available in English- and Khmer-language versions on the group's Web site, extensively maps the individuals and companies involved.

The lucrative trade has steadily stripped Cambodia of its forest cover, but donor countries, who provide $600 million per year in aid to Cambodia, do not exercise their leverage to stop it, the group said.

The report points to Prime Minister Hun Sen, wife Bun Rany, relative Hun Chouch and others as complicit in the trade. Minister of Agriculture Chan Sarun and the director-general of the government's Forest Administration, Ty Sokhun, are also singled out, as well as Lt. Gen. Hing Bun Heang, head of Hun Sen's elite body guard unit, and Gen. Sao Sokha, commander of the military police.

Gruff officials denied involvement in the trade or deflected questions Friday.

"What business does VOA have?" Hing Bun Heang said. "I am not responsible for any news. What business does it have to want to see me? Go meet the Ministry of Defense's commander. Why does it come to meet me? I am curious, very curious. I don't understand why VOA wants to meet me. If it wants to meet for business, meet with the department commander, and it is finished."

Chan Sarun said some forest had been converted to rubber plantations, but according to a government plan for development. Small-scale illegal logging had also taken place, he said, but denied he was involved.

Ty Sokhun said the report's "sources of information are not correct."

Global Witness called on the country's judiciary to investigate crimes by top officials ranging from murder, robbery, smuggling, illegal wood harvesting and tax evasion. The group also called on donors to "proactively" ensure their aid benefits ordinary Cambodians while withholding support from government bodies engaged in criminal activities.

Illegal logging also funded Hun Sen's "private army"—an elite body guard unit of 4,000 and an entire brigade of soldiers—while providing millions of dollars per year to corrupt officials and their business counterparts, the group said.

Donors, meanwhile, "have not used the leverage that [their aid money] gives them effectively," the group said. "Specifically, they have refused to acknowledge the fact that the government is thoroughly corrupt and does not act in the best interests of the population."