PHNOM PENH —
Prime Minister Hun Sen has established a government commission to crack down on illegal logging and timber smuggling.
The commission will be led by military police commander Sao Sokha, and will be supported with two military helicopters and military-grade weapons and training.
Hun Sen announced the commission at the weekly meeting of the Council of Ministers Friday, where he also warned he would begin demoting officials found colluding with timber smugglers.
Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Council, said the announcement came following information that illegal luxury timber is moving to Vietnam through Tbong Khmum province.
“Due to a request from [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng, the new commission will be led by general Sao Sokha, the commander of the military police,” he said.
Environmental activists say the commission will need a plan of action, or it will become another defunct attempt at curbing rampant illegal logging.
Chhay Thy, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, which closely monitors forestry crimes, told VOA Khmer the commission is coming “a bit too late,” given how much of Cambodia’s forest cover has already been logged.
“The government is acknowledging that deforestation has serious impacts on us, that’s why they have to take action,” he said. “Otherwise, the forest will be completely destroyed.”
Cambodians will be paying close attention to the new commission to see whether it takes action, he said, and that could have an impact on national elections in 2018.
“People know clearly whether they just talk without action or just make a performance to lure people,” he said. “People have their own critical thinking, based on the leaders’ actual activities.”
Likewise, Tek Vannara, executive director for the NGO Forum, said the government must take legal action for a crackdown to be effective. Deforestation has major impacts on the poor, leading to food insecurity and climate change, he said. “Our forest nowadays seems very small. We can see there’s only some left in Prey Lang, the area around the Tonle Sap Basin, the Cardamom Mountains and the northeastern provinces.”
The country’s forest cover is down to about 20 percent of what it was just a few decades ago, he said. (The government says cover remains closer to 60 percent.)
Phay Siphan said the new commission was an acknowledgment of the problem and the failure of local authorities and the Ministry of Agriculture’s forestry department, but he said the new plan will achieve results.
“Because they have not been effective, we are taking new action strictly in both mechanism and sensibility,” he said. “As [Hun Sen] said that in those places…he is willing to remove the provincial governors, the district governors, forestry administrators, and military police. Like the Khmer saying: too many people cause burnt sticky rice cakes.”