As two senior Kampong Chhnang police officers were arrested over the weekend for grabbing flooded forest land, rights NGOs said any officials caught clearing flooded forests around the Tonle Sap lake should face punishment for their crimes.
A Kampong Chhnang court document from Sunday shows that Sum Socheat, deputy police chief of Kampong Chhnang, and Keo Narun, chief of intervention police office in the province, were sent to pre-trial detention at Prey Sar prison on December 19 by investigating judge Kuy Sao.
Socheat was charged with destruction and illegally occupying flooded forests, nondeclaration of assets, and money laundering. Narun was charged with the first three charges faced by Socheat.
Kampong Chhnang officials last month said that Socheat had returned 675 hectares of land and Narun had returned 32 hectares of flooded forestland but they were not arrested at the time.
The Council of Ministers on December 3 assigned the Anti-Corruption Unit to investigate and take legal action against former Kampong Chhnang governor Chhour Chandoeun and confiscate more than 2,000 hectares of flooded forest within the province that had been allegedly claimed by private individuals. The unit was also tasked with following court proceedings in Kampong Thom province related to forest encroachment.
Om Yentieng, head of the ACU, told VOD via Telegram that the unit could not comment on the investigation into the Tonle Sap lake area yet.
Kampong Thom governor Ngoun Ratanak said many people had confessed their role in forest encroachment and returned the land to the state, but he didn’t have specific numbers and said no one was sent to the court.
After Prime Minister Hun Sen commanded provincial officials to crack down on the clearing of flooded forests, five provinces along the Tonle Sap said they reclaimed some 20,000 hectares of forest, though arrests have been sporadic. On November 30, Battambang provincial police sent seven people to court, while Siem Reap provincial authorities arrested 278 residents, including 26 of whom were sent to court.
Under the Fisheries Law, those convicted of clearing flooded forests can face three to five years incarceration, while officials and authorities caught clearing flooded forests can be sentenced for one to three years in prison with a fine between 5 million and 50 million riels, or $1,220 to $12,192.
Pen Bunna, community empowerment officer for human rights NGO Adhoc, told VOD that he hopes to see the ACU take action against those caught for encroaching the forest, especially high-ranking officials.
He noted that the National Commission for the Prevention and Suppression of Natural Resources Crimes, which is chaired by military police chief Sao Sokha, had ordered a crackdown on illegal logging twice before, but powerful individuals involved in the crimes were never prosecuted.
“When these problems happen, it is related to corruption,” Bunna said. “It involves corruption with judicial police officers, from the ministry level, the provincial level, the professional level, to the commune level, so we need to require the ACU finding and convicting [these individuals]. If this happens, citizens across the country will support and believe [authorities], as they have lost faith in the law.”
Vann Sophat, a coordinator for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the government’s crackdowns on deforestation in the past focused on general citizens, but citizens will grow more frustrated if powerful individuals are not held accountable for their actions.
“If this cannot be implemented, it can be a reason that makes our society face impunity in the future,” he said. “We are concerned that the next day, impunity will spread and our authorities or government cannot control.”
San Mala, an advocacy officer for the Cambodian Youth Network, said encroachment would begin again after the crackdown if the investigation wasn’t done transparently and those who are implicated are not held accountable. The country can’t afford to lose its natural resources, like the Tonle Sap flooded forests, which serve an important role in fish life cycles as well as nourish soil in the floodplain.
“The conservation of natural resources should be the main thing that the authorities should pay more attention to in the protection and enforcement of the law because natural resources are very important to support the local economy and promote ecotourism services,” he said. “If natural resources are destroyed, Cambodia will be more vulnerable to natural disasters than we have been in the past.”
Additional reporting by Ouch Sony