With his slaying yesterday in the jungles of Koh Kong province, Chut Wutty becomes one of the highest-profile members yet on a dark list of Cambodian activists who have been killed for making a stand against greed and corruption.
Chut Wutty (L), the late director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, is harassed by RCAF soldiers while travelling with two journalists from the Post in Koh Kong province, in December last year. Photo by Will Baxter
Although the details of his death remain unclear, rights groups are already raising the alarm that yesterday’s shooting is a disturbing example of the violent intimidation routinely used against activists in Cambodia.
Sok Sam Oeun, chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said yesterday that while such violence had been predictable at conservation demonstrations, the shooting was unprecedented.
“Powerful people try to use the courts all the time, but now they use force. The situation has become more serious than ever before,” he said. “Look at this story – and look at who will benefit from this killing.”
In December last year, Chut Wutty helped the Post expose large-scale illegal logging and corruption in the southwestern Central Cardamom Protected Forest that was being conducted by military and forestry officials with the complicity of a conservation group.
Conservationists estimate the trade in the CCPF is worth tens of millions of dollars.
Chut Wutty was willing to take risks, and his skill in negotiating with dangerous people became clear when he repeatedly confronted heavily armed military police officials, was apprehended, intimidated and then able to talk his way free.
His death is the most high-profile killing of an activist in Cambodia since unionist Chea Vichea was slain in 2004, but it is by no means an isolated case of violence being employed against anti-logging activists.
In 2007, after UK-based Global Witness released a report linking senior politicians to illegal logging cartels, journalists reporting on the allegations received death threats and violent intimidation, including arson attacks by unknown assailants.
The Post reported on the axe murder in October, 2009 of an environmental activist in Kratie’s Sambo district whose work led to a large-scale crackdown on illegal logging in the months prior to his murder.
In January, 2010, the Post reported that RCAF soldiers had detained at gunpoint 10 journalists who were pursuing a story on illegal logging.
The journalists were later released after their cameras were confiscated.
That October, a forestry administration official was hacked to death with axes as revenge for his work in cracking down on illegal logging.
Last November, 500 police and military police descended on a demonstration by 300 Prey Lang activists, who made a human shield around Chut Wutty after he was wrestled to the ground in an attempted arrest, having set fire to caches of illegally logged timber.
Ou Virak, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said fighting illegal logging was like fighting a drug cartel – a very risky endeavour.
“These people have lots of money and they have lots of interests at stake, and they pay off local authorities and armed officials to provide protection for them,” he said.
Ek Tha, a spokesman for the Council of Ministers Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said he could not confirm the details of Chut Wutty’s case, but guns were for protecting the public, not shooting them.
“I want to send a message to all gun owners to put the gun law and other related laws before them or they would face legal action if they had committed unlawful activities,” Ek Tha said by email. “Always bear in mind that we are all living in the global technology, so once a single bullet is fired in an unlawful manner, it is reported worldwide through electronic media.”
Svay Phoeun, a representative of villagers in Preah Vihear province who worked with Chut Wutty, said the death was bad news for villagers who worked with Chut Wutty, but they would continue to follow in his footsteps with even more vigour.
“Chut Wutty’s heart is gone, but thousands of Chut Wutty hearts still survive. We are not afraid of the person who killed Chut Wutty for trying to stop illegal loggers; we have never been afraid.”