A member of the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) in Kratie province was seriously injured after she was attacked by an unknown assailant while sleeping in a hammock on Sunday night near Boeung Cha village.
Observers say the attack highlights the brutally hostile nature of the illegal logging industry and the lengths to which they will go to protect their stakes in the timber trade.
The victim, Phon Sopheak, said she was attacked at 1:30 am, with the assailant hacking at her leg with an axe before making an escape.
The attack happened on the last day of Ms. Sopheak’s patrol of the forest. Her and a group of PLCN members were attempting to halt the actions of illegal loggers and said on their patrol they had confiscated 35 chainsaws across the four provinces the forest covers.
“We had been suppressing deforestation crimes by confiscating 14 chainsaws,” Ms. Sopheak told Khmer Times from her hospital bed via telephone, referring to the number of saws seized only in Kratie.
“Usually, when we carry out our operations to suppress deforestation crimes, the perpetrators aren’t happy with us. In the past, it never happened that way [violently], but this time, they came in person. Before, when I patrolled the forest, it was not like that. Only some timber businessmen tried to threaten us.”
Ms. Sopheak said that despite the attack, she was not afraid and would continue to patrol the forest.
“I’m not scared, because if they destroy all the forest, it won’t be my family alone who suffers. All people from the four provinces will also suffer. So I have to fight against perpetrators,” she said.
Hoeun Soheap, a representative of the PLCN in Kampong Thom province, said that during the patrol from March 23 to March 27, Prey Lang activists in the province had confiscated 16 chainsaws. Activists in Kratie province confiscated 14 saws and those in Preah Vihear confiscated four. A Stung Treng activists found one.
“Hundreds of walk-behind tractors were all over the forest, ready to transport wood from Prey Lang forest, which is facing serious destruction,” Mr. Soheap said.
“They do timber business just like they do a legal business. Since the creation of the National Anti-Deforestation Committee, the forest is being destroyed more and more. There is no such talk that the crime is decreasing. It’s only increasing. I urge the authorities to also help us stop it.”
Thai Bun Lieng, coordinator for the PLCN in Kratie province, said the attack on Ms. Sopheak was a threat that concerned Prey Lang forest patrollers. His team will file a complaint to authorities to bring the perpetrator to justice.
“When we stopped them, they didn’t fight back, but when we took a rest at night, they came secretly to murder us. This case could relate to a certain number of timber businessmen,” he said.
The Prey Lang forest covers 615,306 hectares of land in Kratie, Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear and Stung Treng provinces.
A drafted sub-decree granting Prey Lang protected status bans deforestation activities in the forest such as land clearance, illegal bush ownership, exploitation of timber and hunting that affects the forest and all kinds of animals.
Eng Hy, spokesman for the National Gendarmerie and the National Anti-Deforestation Committee, said his officials could only exercise their power in the north-east part of the country, with those in Kratie and Stung Treng provinces not being able to communicate with the committee.
“If villagers encounter such crimes, they could call my officials. They will go to the place of the crime,” the spokesman said.
Ouch Leng, president of the Human Rights Task Force, said people were passionate about fighting against deforestation and have forced the government to make more of an effort to stop its spread. But the measures have largely been ineffective due to the lucrative nature of the timber trade, the high-ranking statuses of a number of timber businessmen and million-dollar stakes and investments in the business by government officials, allegedly including family members of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“There is nothing new in the threat to kill forest activists. They always threatened the activists, and the activists have always been murdered because they are a bone in the [deforesters’] throats. They have always been damaging their interests,” Mr. Leng said.
According to a 2015 report by international NGO Forest Green, the loss of forest in Cambodia was due to a number of private companies using their ELC licenses from the government to destroy protected areas with the forests.
Prey Lang Community Network members confiscated 35 chainsaws during their patrol. Supplied