PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - An alleged timber smuggler in Cambodia has given journalists a lesson in ethics: People who take bribes should honor their commitments — or be prepared to die.
Timber smuggling and bribery are both common in Cambodia, but a video posted on Facebook late last week appears to illustrate how ingrained both activities have become.
The video clip was posted on a page calling itself the Siem Reap Post. It shows provincial logging tycoon Heng Samneang complaining that journalists in the northeastern province of Stung Treng to whom she was allegedly giving payoffs to keep her activities secret had instead informed the authorities, who then confiscated timber she was accused of trying to smuggle across the border to Vietnam.
She said that those who did not honor their promises would die in a car crash, though it was unclear if that was meant as a curse or a threat.
A journalist in Stung Treng, speaking anonymously because of fear for his safety, confirmed to The Associated Press that he and his colleagues were aware of Heng Samneang's alleged illegal activities, which had been going on for more than 10 years, and had received cash payments from her.
He said officials in charge of regulating logging also were aware of her activities and likewise took payoffs. While some of Heng Samneang's shipments had been confiscated, she had never been arrested, he said.
High deforestation rate
Environmental activists and experts say that Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, much of it due to illegal logging and corrupt land deals.
The video clip of Heng Samneang, also known as "Yeay Proeung," shows her outside what appears to be her office on an unknown date. She has burning joss sticks grasped between her hands, which she raises up and down in front of her head in an oath-taking ceremony.
Heng Samneang is heard calling on the sky and Earth as her witnesses for punishment for any journalists who betray her by informing the authorities of her activities.
"All you journalists, be my witness," she says. "While we are alive, we shall behave with honesty. If you have given your word to someone, you have to honor that promise or you will die in a car crash."
In the brief segment, she also tells the journalists that she does not keep all her income for herself, but shares it with them.
The journalist who spoke to the AP acknowledged receiving money from Heng Samneang, but said it was just occasional payments of $15 to $20 treated as being for food or gasoline. The average annual income in Cambodia is about $1,000, though it is much lower in rural areas such as Stung Treng.
Some journalists and activists trying to expose illegal logging in Cambodia have been killed. But other journalists — or people who describe themselves as journalists — use their knowledge of illegal logging to extort money from the loggers.
Buth Vicheath, owner of the Siem Reap Post Facebook page on which the video clip was posted, said he received it from a friend and was happy to circulate it to encourage the government to crack down on illegal logging.