The new governor of southeastern Laos’ Attapeu province has assured the public that he will hold responsible people involved in an illegal logging scheme that led to the seizure of 27 trucks filled with Lao timber and the downfall of his predecessor.
In May, Lao authorities seized a convoy of 27 trucks of logs owned by Seng Viyaketh, wife of then-governor Nam Viyaketh, at the Phoukeua International Border Checkpoint, which regulates crossings into western Vietnam’s Kon Tum province.
Authorities determined that the timber was illegally obtained from Laos, where logging is heavily restricted as a measure to curb widespread deforestation, and where timber exports are prohibited.
Nam and his wife denied any involvement in the incident at the time.
Leth Xaiyaphone, the province’s deputy governor who became governor on Nov. 21, assured Lao citizens that he would pursue the prosecution of those who disregarded state law and a Communist Party directive banning logging in certain areas and exports of timber from Laos.
“I guarantee people that we will seek justice against the perpetrators, who must be held responsible for what they have done,” he said at the time of his appointment.
Three Lao officials from the province’s finance, forestry, and commerce departments are being investigated for their roles in the scheme and have been ordered to stop working, Leth said.
“Now provincial authorities and the Prime Minister’s Office have all agreed to appoint a task force committee to conduct the investigation and collect evidence,” he said.
The Communist Party of Laos removed Nam Viyaketh as governor of Attapeu province for his involvement in the illegal logging incident, mismanagement, and the embezzlement of state funds, official sources told RFA’s Lao Service.
The Politburo issued an order reassigning him to work with the country’s National Social and Scientific Council.
The seized timber has been auctioned in Attapeu province, while its quality was still good, Leth said, but provided no further details about the proceeds.
12 more seized
Another 12 containers of Lao lumber were seized on Nov. 24 in northern Thailand’s Nan province, according to the chief of the provincial government’s cabinet, who did not provide his name.
The timber passed through the Houan-Nam Ngun border checkpoint between Sayaboury province in Laos and Nan province in Thailand, he said.
He said officials believe that the 12 containers were passing through Thailand en route to China, where tropical hardwood is in high demand for furniture and other products.
“The timber for producing furniture was deemed illegal, and customs officers estimated its value at 12 million baht [U.S. $368,000],” he said.
But the value of the timber would have increased to 30 million baht (U.S. $920,000) had it reached China, the official said.
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 2016 as part of an effort to end rampant smuggling to China and Vietnam, where the wood is used to make high-end furniture.
Sources have told RFA that provincial officials who take bribes to facilitate the smuggling include those from the departments of commerce, forest, public works and transport, customs and tax, and the provincial cabinet office.
Some 10,000 cubic meters (353,150 cubic feet) of illegally harvested timber seized from smugglers in Attapeu province this year has gone missing, likely the result of local authorities looking the other way or actively selling the wood on the black market.
Most 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.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.