Locals Say Officials Took Bribes, Freed Illegal Loggers in W. Myanmar

By Htet Naing Zaw 22 August 2019

NAYPYITAW—Lower House lawmaker U Myint Wai, of Rakhine State’s Gwa Township, accused forest department staff and police of setting free illegal loggers arrested in his constituency in May.

The lawmaker raised the issue in Parliament on Wednesday.

According to him, local residents arrested a vessel carrying around 40 tons of timber and a boat carrying around 20 at a jetty in Satt Thwar village tract in Gwa Township on May 18 before handing over both to police and forest department officials.

However, the vessel went missing three days later and was then replaced with another, he said.

Those who took part in the arrest returned home only after five forest department officials and two policemen took charge of the vessel; U Myint Wai accused the seven of accepting bribes from illegal loggers and releasing them, the larger vessel and their timber.

However, Deputy Minister for Home Affairs Major-General Aung Thu said both vessels are moored at the Satt Thwar Chaung Creek Bridge, and that timber from the vessels has been unloaded.

Police are searching for suspects and Gwa Township Forest Ranger U Khin Maung Win has opened a police case, the deputy minister said, adding that no action will be taken against the police and forest department officials involved.

U Myint Wai accepted the deputy minister’s statement regarding the smaller of the two vessels but insisted that the larger one had been replaced with another, presenting Parliament with what he said was photo evidence of the crime.

“I would like to know if the ministry plans to inspect the grounds and, if it is evident that the vessel got away, I would like to know what action will be taken against those responsible, in consideration of the dignity of the entire Parliament and of your own,” he said.

Maj-Gen Aung Thu said his statements were based on reports from the Rakhine State government and the ministry, but he promised to investigate further.

“I learned that [illegal loggers] were set free deliberately. Civilians slept overnight on the boats for four days, from May 18 to 21, and they know when the vessel was replaced,” U Myint Wai told reporters after the parliamentary session.

“I believe this happened because forestry department officials are involved,” he said.

U Myat Soe, a Satt Thwar village administrator who led the citizen arrests of the vessels, also claimed the larger one was replaced, and that police did not respond when he and other villagers reported the replacement to them.

“The vessel we arrested was replaced with another one on August 21. Police and forest department officials were present at the time. The two vessels are different in shape,” he told The Irrawaddy.

The replaced vessel. The Irrawaddy

According to U Myint Wai, the arrest of illegal loggers in southern Rakhine State is usually led by community members. When locals receive information about illegal logging, they usually inform lawmakers, and if lawmakers can confirm the case they inform the township administrator, who informs the forest department and the police.

“Whenever arrests are made, authorities arrive between 20 minutes to one hour later than civilians. In the arrest in May, locals had to hire two boats [to chase after and arrest the illegal loggers] for 15,000 kyats for each. They have to pay from their own pockets,” said U Myint Wai.

When the National League for Democracy took power in 2016, lawmakers in southern Rakhine State expected the government to take actions to decrease illegal logging in the area, but they have seen no significant decreases in the illicit practice there, he said.

He said that, since 2016, lawmakers have participated in the seizure of hundreds of tons of smuggled timber in southern Rakhine State.

“The head of the Satt Thwar police station and forest department officials were present when the vessel was replaced. The truth will be revealed if civilians who took part [in the arrest] are questioned,” U Myint Wai told The Irrawaddy.

Despite rampant illegal logging in Gwa Township, suspects are rarely arrested because officials, bribed by the suspects, tip them off when citizens are planning an arrest, allowing suspects to flee, he said.

According to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, 48,681 tons of smuggled timber and 3,483 pieces of logging equipment were seized between April 2017 and April 2018, involving some 7,300 suspects.

Most of the seizures were made in Shan State.