Illegal Log Trade Continues on Salween River

By Saw Yan Naing 27 September 2016

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The 25 tons of teak logs recently seized on the Salween River in Karen State show that the illegal trade persists despite a nationwide logging ban.

The teak logs were seized by an armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) along with Thai military after they were found floating down the river in the Thai border village of Ban Tha Ta Fang in Mae Hong Son Province.

Speaking with The Irrawaddy from a military camp on the border, Lt-Col Kyaw Mue of Brigade 5 of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) said that the logs were intended to be delivered to a company in Hpa-an, capital of Karen State, passing territory of the KNLA Brigade 5 on the Salween River.

“As the government has banned logging nationwide, we seized the logs as they passed through our area,” said Lt-Col Kyaw Mue. “If we let them pass freely, we worry that people will accuse us of taking bribes—we don’t want our image damaged.”

Lt-Col Kyaw Mue said that the logs were escorted by a number of workers including ethnic Karenni and Karen with Thai documents. After seizing the logs the KNLA Brigade 5 let these men return in their boat.

Thai border guard soldiers also said they went to examine the logs but later held no responsibility as the logs came from Karenni State, eastern Burma.

A document dated Sept. 21 obtained by The Irrawaddy showed that the logs were authorized by a Karenni armed organization known as the Karenni Nationalities People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF).

The document, signed by the KNPLF’s vice-chairman Tun Shwe, gives permission to trader U Myint Thein to transport 112 logs from Hpasawng in Karenni state, though no destination was recorded.

Lt-Col Kyaw Mue said that he had contacted U Myint Thein and detained him at the KNLA Brigade 5 base. He said he is waiting to hear from KNU on what to do with U Myint Thein and the seized logs.

Illegal logging has been regularly reported in Karen and Karenni states, which border Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province. The Thai military and police often crack down on illegal trade on their northern border with patrols by boat and helicopter.

In June, Minister for Resources and Environmental Conservation U Ohn Win announced a complete suspension of logging to stem rapid deforestation in Burma. The ministry also imposed a ban on teak logging in areas without young teak growth.

According to the minister, from the start of the 2016-17 fiscal year in April, a total of 1,940 tons of smuggled logs and 104 units of heavy machinery were seized, along with 117 smugglers arrested in Kachin State. Over the past five years, a total of 26,233 tons of smuggled logs and 1,598 units of machinery were seized, while 861 Burmese smugglers and 176 foreign smugglers were arrested.

Saw Alex Htoo, deputy director of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN), criticized persistent illegal logging on the Salween River despite the nationwide ban.

“The logging trade must not continue as Parliament has banned it nationwide,” said Saw Alex Htoo. “Illegal logging not only affects the environment but could lead to conflict between local armed groups.”

Founded in 1978, the KNPLF split from its main organization the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP)—an ethnic armed organization that signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement with the former government. With backing from the Burma Army, the KNPLF also serve as border guard force (BGF).

Sources close to the KNPP said that some KNPLF leaders were logging illegally together with leaders of the KNU’s Brigade 7, although they could not be pushed for more detail.