By PIYAPORN WONGRUANG
THE NATION WEEKEND
A check of camera traps installed one kilometre away near the Thai-Cambodia-Lao border showed a man in what appeared to be a foreign military uniform and carrying an AK47 gun and GPS device, which brought to Chaiwat Limlikhit-aksorn’s mind the gangs of Phayung (Siamese Rosewood) loggers and drug traffickers roaming in the forest.
“It may have stood in their way, and so was killed. The GPS may have been used to check on Phayung locations,” said Chaiwat, who went to check on the incident himself before instructing his men to conduct a wide search for the hunter.
Since the late 2000s, Phayung has increasingly been on demand despite its growing rarity in the forest.
The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP) has estimated that Phayung trees grow in about 360,000 rai (57,600 hectares) of northeastern and eastern forests, much of it along the borders between Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
Due to increasing demand, mostly from the Chinese market, illegal logging of Phayung wood is increasingly sophisticated, crossing borders and escalating into a regional challenge -– with help from corrupt officials in Thailand and its neighbours.
NCAPS camera captured a group of loggers sneaking into Thap Lan this year. Courtesy of DNP.
According to the DNP and suppression sources dealing with the issue, illegal logging of Phayung emerged on Thai soil in the late 2000s. The DNP’s arrest statistics show no arrests from 2006 to 2008, and only a small number of log seizures.
Starting in 2009, the DNP managed 134 arrests with at least 96 loggers nabbed, and over 1,200 Phayung logs or pieces seized.
Arrests and seizures have since surged, reaching a peak of 1,200 arrests in 2012 along with 800 loggers nabbed, and 10,000 logs and wood pieces seized.
Then Cambodia spoke out about Thai enforcers killing their citizens over the trade, and a push for cross-border cooperation to suppress illegal logging began between Thailand and its neighbours.
The illegal logging of Phayung wood was at first committed by local rural residents and forest dwellers in the Northeast, and then expanded as citizens of other countries joined in, particularly in protected areas near the border, like Huai Sala wildlife sanctuary and Phu Si Than. Sporadic clashes started to occur during the patrols and attempts to arrest the loggers, with shootings and deaths reported from time to time.
Officials later learned later that some citizens of border countries were brought to Thailand by gangs, while some Thai officers facilitated their travels and transporting the logs.
Whereas small groups of 10 to 20 labourers once snuck into Thai forests to fell the trees, today groups of as large as 50 or more, complete with camping equipment, have prolonged forest stays. They were protected by “foreign armed groups”, the critical factor leading to violence and deadly clashes, according to suppression sources.
By 2011 the activity had spread to the eastern forests, including Thap Lan and Pang Sida National Parks, as well as Ta Phraya_about a one-hour drive from the Cambodia border.
One suppression source dealing with the situation there said illegal Phayung logging gangs operated in cooperation with Thai officers and were guarded by “foreign armed groups” with heavy weapons including AK47 rifles.
By 2011 and 2012 in Thap Lan, a group of as many as 50 foreign labourers were intercepted sneaking into the park. At first they were unguarded and non-violent. But a similar group detected in Pang Sida a few years later had armed guards with heavy weapons, said the source, who was once caught in an ambush all night while helping his subordinates claim illegal logs.
The identity of those behind the “foreign armed groups” remained unkown until security officers were assigned by the National Council for Peace and Order to join the operation in 2014 under orders 64 and 66 dealing with forest suppression.
Thai security intelligence identified some security officers from neighbouring countries with a Colonel rank as being behind the foreign armed groups protecting the loggers, said a source.
Some are even the masterminds themselves, being known along the border as “Sia”, or the “tycoon”.
However, the security force has insufficient evidence to raise the issue at official security meetings, including the General Border Committee. But the scale and sophistication of the activities causes the security force concern. Also, having foreigners sneaking deep near the central part of the country is a critical security challenge, the source said.
Another suppression source said a part of the escalating poaching has to do with the long, but only partly demarcated border between Thailand and its neighbours. The result is a no man’s land where various illegal activities have flourished.
In forests of the Northeast, the gangs have expanded into other illegal activities including drug trafficking, with the activities sustained by cooperation between Thai officers and their neighbouring counterparts.
“Their illegal activities come in various forms, but what is badly evil is that officers from almost every part are involved, from forest officers themselves to administration officers, police, security officers, and politicians, both local and national, and both in the country and in the neighbouring countries,” said the source, based on the intelligence he has received.
Cambodians nabbed in Thap Lan following the capture of NCAPS camera.
During 2012, illegal Phayung logging escalated into regional tensions as Cambodia accused Thailand of killing its citizens over the smuggling.
The Phnom Penh Post in early 2013 reported on the summary killings of Cambodian citizens after clashes over illegal Phayung logging activity in 2012, that left at least 45 Cambodians shot dead, a threefold increase from 2011, while over 260 were arrested. The report cited the Cambodian-Thai Border Relations Office’s statistics.
The situation prompted Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to sign a circular to crack down on rosewood logging and trafficking. Government officials were also instructed to warn citizens not to cross the border to fell the wood. But over-logging within Cambodia had depleted local stocks, resulting in a spike in prices for the luxury wood abroad, and forcing loggers ever further into Thailand, the Phnom Penh Post reported.
“They cross the border for two or three days and get about 10 kilometres deep into Thailand. If they’re able to return with rosewood, each can earn from $200 to $1,000,” Chea Slonh, district police chief of Banteay Meanchey’s Svay Chek was quoted as saying by the paper.
Poverty was identified as a critical factor driving Cambodian citizens to keep risking their lives crossing the border for the blood-coloured wood.
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to Hun Sen’s accusation by defending Thai authorities, as they had acted in self-defence after encountering armed groups with heavy weapons.
Both sides then sought cooperation to suppress the problem, initiating bilateral talks and meetings which years later were expanded into multilateral platforms to discuss the best way to deal with illegal Phayung logging.
The most concrete result of the years-long transboundary efforts are national and provincial committees where issues can be raised for talks.
At the 2nd Thai-Cambodia Joint Cabinet Retreat (JCR) held in December 2015, both sides agreed their national committees dealing with the problem would organise the first meeting to address mechanisms to support the joint patrol, as well as joint investigations into cases arising out of the activity.
That year, Thailand came up with its national framework to address the problem. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment’s proposal to prevent and suppress Phayung poaching and corruption covered three main areas.
The first is addressing policy and administration by listing the issue among national agendas, along with stronger laws, better legal enforcement and more severe punishments.
Transboundary cooperation, was the second critical area under the framework and re-management of seized wood stockpiles was the last.
Some measures have been implemented with success, such as listing Phayung wood as prohibited from against any kinds of logging as is done with teak, while other measures remain unfulfilled, such as a ban on cross-border transport of the wood, which is forbidden under the Barcelona Statute on Freedom of Transit 1921.
Suppression officials agree that prevention is far more effective than suppression. Using technology, and by stepping out of the core watershed to the fringes in order to break down the logging gangs, they’ve had some success.
Fundamentally, it comes down to taking care of “our house”, said Cheewapap Cheewatham, director of the Royal Forestry Department’s Forest Protection and Fire Control office.
Our house needs to be “clean”, and so the government gets serious with officials who are found to be involved with the activity, he said.
So far, about 10 officials have been subject to disciplinary action or fired, according to Cheewapap, who is also chief of the government’s Forest Protection Operation Centre’s Phayak Prai taskforce.
As of the latest data, from 2016, the DNP has made 98 arrests, with 111 wrongdoers nabbed, and 1,766 logs or pieces of Phayung wood seized.
Some suppression sources have observed that the decline in the number of arrests does not suggest a declining trend of illegal activity. Rather, it suggests the wood is probably almost all gone, as also seen by the smaller size of recent logs and pieces. Most of the big and beautiful trees have been felled and removed, leaving forests with only those under a half-metre width or so to be protected, they said.
The wood, meanwhile, is still listed under Appendix 2 by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Phayung is a “species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilisation incompatible with their survival”, or in other word, can still be traded with permission once crossing the border.
“For how long we can protect it_the tree which is worthier than our bounties now?,” said Chaiwat.