By Ounkeo Souksavanh
Attapeu, Laos, August 9, 2017
An investigation by authorities in Laos into more than two dozen trucks seized at the border with Vietnam after they were found to be hauling illegally logged timber is likely to be indefinitely delayed if the contraband is linked to the governor of Attapeu province, according to a local civil society official.
Twenty-seven trucks of logs allegedly owned by governor Nam Viyaketh’s wife Seng Viyaketh have been held since May at the Phoukeua International Border Checkpoint, which regulates crossings into western Vietnam’s Kon Tum province. Both the governor and his wife have denied involvement with the timber.
On Monday, an official with a Lao civil society organization (CSO) told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity that an investigation into the ownership of the timber could be “never-ending,” because if the governor is connected to the shipment, he will use his authority to obstruct justice.
“It’s serious that Nam Viyakheth, who is a member of [the ruling Communist] party’s central committee, and a son of former Lao revolutionary hero Lieutenant General Samane Viyakheth, is alleged to have become involved in smuggling timber,” the official said.
“This will prevent the government or the Lao Politburo Committee from taking measures against him if he is found guilty.”
The late Samane Viyakheth was also formerly the Lao deputy minister of national defense and president of the National Assembly, the country’s rubber stamp parliament.
The CSO official noted that despite authorities impounding the timber trucks three months ago, an investigation into the case “appears to have gone silent.”
“At this point, my observation is that the investigation is being delayed as a ‘way out,’ or investigators are searching for scapegoat in this case, because Nam Viyakheth has publicly rejected his family’s collusion in the timber issue,” the official said.
“They are taking plenty of time to investigate, because the timber case in Attapeu province is related to a powerful person. But my viewpoint is that he should be punished if he is guilty, which would provide a warning to others [who may seek to abuse their position],” he added.
“My concern is that the investigation is being delayed and will become never-ending, so that the public simply forgets it.”
The CSO official voiced his concerns about the investigation as a source who inspects timber in the southern provinces of Laos under the State Inspection Authority, reasserted his claim from June that Nam Viyakheth and his family are involved in smuggling and linked to the 27 trucks.
“The State Inspection Authority ordered the seizure of 27 logging trucks because the governor of Attapeu has not implemented Decree 15 [ban on timber exports], even though it has otherwise been strictly enforced nationwide,” he said.
“A detailed plan was used and a gang deployed to smuggle the timber with the 27 logging trucks.”
According to the inspector, Nam Viyakheth’s family had initially become involved in smuggling, while the governor had “abused his power to threaten and remove officials who challenged him.”
Two years ago, he said, a saw mill illegally run by businessman Kham Rattanaphone was shut down by the authorities, but the governor had since authorized his family to use the mill and it is now the only one registered to operate in the province.
Additionally, at least 20 other trucks were used to smuggle timber across the border to Vietnam prior to the seizure of the trucks in May by using a “fake list of wood products to exhibit” in the country, he added.
Another State Inspection Authority official, who also asked to remain unnamed, told RFA on Sunday that if timber was being exported from Attapeu province across the border into Vietnam, the governor would know about it.
“The first step of exporting timbers is that the exporter must request permission from the provincial cabinet office—particularly the governor,” he said.
“After that, the cabinet office will issue permission from the relevant departments, including agriculture and forestry, finance, industry and commerce, because these departments dare not issue approval of timber exports without first receiving the agreement of the governor.”
Additionally, the official noted Nam Viyakheth told RFA last week that he had closed all checkpoints along the highway used by the 27 trucks to drive towards Vietnam, so authorities would not have been able to inspect them until they arrived at the border.
“[In the interview] Nam Viyakheth said he had closed the checkpoints on Route 18B to the border, but I still see three checkpoints in operation, all within 100 kilometers (62 miles) on Route 18B,” he said, suggesting that the governor would have been informed that the trucks were on their way to Vietnam.
In June, Seng Viyaketh dismissed the accusation that she owned the illegally harvested timber seized in Attapeu in an interview with RFA.
“I confirm that I am not involved in the seized timber—that is a rumor and disparaging me, so I am willing to be interviewed [to deny it],” she said at the time, calling the allegation “groundless” and demanding that her accuser come forward with evidence to prove that she runs a timber business.
And on Aug. 2, Nam Viyakheth told RFA that while his family “does other business,” including tourism, “we are not involved in the timber business and have never been.” He noted that he had publicly opposed timber smuggling while previously Minister of Industry and Commerce.
While Nam previously suggested on Facebook that the 27 trucks belong to a company operated by Kham Rattanaphone, he added in his interview with RFA that provincial and central authorities have not completed their investigation of the timber trucks, which he said he is awaiting the results of.
Two days later, RFA spoke with minister to the Prime Minister’s Office Chaleun Yiapaoher, who said the investigation would require more time.
“It is not easy to fact check 27 trucks with so much timber—in particular, collecting information, and loading and unloading the timber is a long process, while cooperation is required between several relevant departments using a variety of approaches,” he said.
“[The investigation] is taking a long time, but we are making sure it is correct and doesn’t include any fraudulent results. If we rush to do it, it won’t be accurate because we lack modern equipment. Whether it is slow or fast matters less than that it is correct.”
According to Chaleun Yiapaoher, authorities will not be in a position to determine who is behind the timber smuggling until the investigation has concluded.
High-ranking officials in Attapeu are regularly involved in illegal logging and cross-border sales, despite a ban on the export of timber issued by Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in May last year as part of a bid to end rampant smuggling to China and Vietnam, where the wood is used to make high-end furniture.
Deforestation has been a major problem in the last two decades for Laos, where forests now cover less than 40 percent of the country’s land, according to the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.
Much of the illegal timber is obtained through conversion forestry—clearing areas marked for the development of infrastructure projects such as hydropower dams, road building, and mining operations—which is used as an excuse for large-scale logging that otherwise would not be permitted under Lao law.