03/20/2023, 15.53
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Cambodian paper accuses prime minister’s son of involvement in illegal timber trade

Hun Manet, eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, criticised the Cambodia Daily for citing an investigation linking him to illegal logging in a protected area bordering Laos. An independent investigation found that the logging in pristine forests is linked to a government-connected tycoon, known as “Oknha Chey”.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews) - General Hun Manet, eldest son of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, commander of the army and according to some observers, future leader of the country, criticised The Cambodia Daily for accusing him of links to the illegal timber trade.

On the Telegram messaging service, the prime minister also asked the newspaper to present its evidence, noting that if it had no malicious intent to publish false information, it should make changes if it lacks the evidence.

Just last month, the prime minister shut down the Voice of Cambodia, one of the few independent media outlets that remained in the country.

According to the Khmer Times, a newspaper linked to the ruling Cambodian People's Party, the Cambodia Daily cited an investigation into deforestation in Siem Pang and Sesan districts, Stung Treng province, and published on Mongabay, a conservation news web portal.

The latter’s research documents logging operations by the TSMW company in northern Cambodia, and explains how these activities are not only illegal but also linked to "Oknha Chey", a pseudonym that in the Khmer language means "victorious tycoon”, i.e. “a three-star military general who also serves as a top Interior Ministry official”.

According to Mongabay, residents who live along the banks of the Sekong River, in Stung Treng province, on the border with Laos, say that after the construction of a road between March and April 2022, dozens of lorries began crossing the waterway – only at night – carrying timber from an area of 6,000 hectares of pristine rainforest that stretches between the districts of Siem Pang and Sesan and that “was not protected at the time logging commenced”.

The area, however, was classified as public land, owned by the state, so clearing the forest without government permission was a crime. What is more, the region is also part of a biodiversity corridor managed by the Ministry of the Environment, which in mid-February announced the creation of a protected area of over 110,000 hectares that would also include the two aforementioned districts.

Yet, the government has never disclosed the boundaries of this area, while satellite imagery confirmed that logging activities go far beyond the boundaries of the concession given to TSMW.

Access to the area in recent months has also been restricted by the creation of a series of checkpoints that prevent local people from reaching it.

Locals claim that the new logging operations are linked to Okhna Chey, a name they heard from loggers and lorry drivers who came to work on the Sekong River.

According to residents, these workers come mostly from provinces of Cambodia where the sale of timber is a profitable activity, especially to Vietnam where profits are greatest.

No one knows for sure who Okhna Chey is, but several environmental activists report that the name appeared several times in connection with investigations into illegal logging activities.

Local journalists identified him as Meuk Saphannareth, a three-star general linked to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his son Hun Manet, who serves as deputy director of the General Department of Prisons at the Ministry of the Interior.

The Mongabay investigation confirmed Meuk Saphannareth’s identity by showing a photo of him to a factory representative who bought TSMW's timber and knew him as Okhna Chey. At the same time, links with the prime minister and his son emerged.

After the publication of the investigation, Saphannareth removed pictures with Hun Sen and Hun Manet from his social media accounts, as well as photos with his family, including one from 2019 that shows him with TXMW’s sole director.

Ouch Leng, a Goldman Environmental Prize-winning activist, says that, with each passing year, "the government tries to find benefits from exploiting the forests," and illegal logging seems to increase before each election, and the next one is this July.

Leng calculated that Saphannareth could be earning about US$ 3.75 million per month from logging. In his view,  the government's signal to the tycoons is clear: take the timber and the money, and support the Cambodian People's Party.

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