Lao authorities at a border crossing with Vietnam seized seven truckloads of timber last week after the trucks’ owner failed to pay a bribe to allow the unprocessed wood, which is illegal for export, to leave the country, Lao sources said.
The logs were harvested at a saw mill owned by a Vietnamese businessman in the Saysettha district of Attapeu province, and were seized at the border on Jan. 24, an official working at the border checkpoint told RFA’s Lao Service.
“They are now being kept in a warehouse at the border for investigation,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Also speaking to RFA, a source in Attapeu with knowledge of the matter said that authorities had earlier stopped seven trucks from the same firm carrying finished wood products, but then allowed these to cross into Vietnam since they could be legally exported.
“The Vietnamese business owner did not pay officials the required bribe for the timber, though, so the officials decided to confiscate it all,” he said.
Reached for comment, an official at Attapeu’s department for investigating timber smuggling denied any knowledge of the event, adding, “I’m not involved in this investigation. I don’t know anything about it.”
Smugglers will now often mix timber with finished wood products to move across the border, one source in Attapeu said, while other sources told RFA that vendors now prefer to smuggle timber to Vietnam through the Lalai international checkpoint “because it is easier to bribe officials there.”
While officials at the border in Attapeu charge at least U.S. $1,000 per truckload, officials in Saravan charge only $500, sources said. Meanwhile timber harvested from endangered trees costs more to send to Vietnam than “ordinary timber,” sources said.
A widespread problem
In late 2017, the central government dismissed the governor of Attapeu province, whose wife had been implicated in the transport to Vietnam of timber harvested illegally in their heavily deforested region.
The dismissal followed the seizure in May 2017 of a convoy of 27 trucks of logs owned by Seng Viyaketh, wife of Attapeu's then-governor Nam Viyaketh, at the Phoukeua checkpoint on the border. Authorities determined that the timber was illegally obtained in Laos.
Corruption has been a widespread and long-term problem in the developing country because of Laos’ weak laws and lack of enforcement by authorities
Transparency International, a Berlin-based global anticorruption coalition, ranked Laos 130 among 180 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2019 and gave the country a score of 29 on a scale in which 0 is highly corrupt and 100 is very clean.
Corruption exists at every level of government in Laos and is difficult to uproot because it has become part of the country’s culture, a source familiar with corruption in Laos told RFA.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.