By Chris Lang
Chut Wutty was the director of the Natural Resource Protection Group and one of Cambodia’s leading campaigners against illegal logging and land grabs. He was shot dead by military police on Wednesday.
He was guiding two journalists from the Cambodia Daily to investigate illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountains in Koh Kong province. In Kong Chet, who works with Licadho, a Cambodian human rights organisation, told the Phnom Penh Post that the military police ordered Chut Wutty to hand over the memory card from his camera. Wutty declined. A military policeman opened fire with an AK-47 when Wutty tried to drive away. The policeman was also killed when a bullet ricocheted off the car. (The Washington Post reports military police spokesperson Kheng Tito as saying that the military policeman killed himself.)
Chut Wutty had taken the journalists to look at the Stung Atay dam in Pursat province. The dam is being built by China National Heavy Machinery in an area that was until recently dense forest. The company that has the contract to clear the reservoir area, MDS Import Export, has, according to Chut Wutty, been illegally logging outside the reservoir area and inside the Central Cardamom Protected Forest.
The Phnom Penh Post reported military police spokesperson, Kheng Tito, as saying that,
Chut Wutty … was killed after military police apprehended him at Veal Bei in Mondul Seima district on behalf of a company that asked them to stop him from shooting photos of their development…. “And the company asked the military police in that area to come to intervene, and later on, the shooting happened.”
This wasn’t the first time that Chut Wutty had been stopped by military police while taking journalists to investigate illegal logging. Here’s how Post journalists reported what happened when they visited the area in December 2011:
At 11.25pm on Sunday, five military personnel, two carrying assault rifles, stepped out of a Toyota Camry with no licence plates and surrounded two Post journalists who had just photographed a pick-up truck inside the CCPF [Central Cardamom Protected Forest] that was packed with young rosewood.
They claimed it was illegal to take shots of the vehicles because they belonged to a private company.
After demanding the photographer clear one of his memory cards, the men returned and passed a mobile phone to Chut Wutty, who entered into a protracted and heated conservation with a man he says identified himself as the security chief of the company Timber Green.
When a Post reporter called the man’s phone and asked if he was the security chief of Timber Green, the man asked “what’s wrong?” and hung up when questioned further.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights says that Wutty was also threatened over a decade ago, when he was part of a Conservation International team that was patrolling for illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountains:
“In 2001 as part of a small Conservation International team sent to patrol for illegal logging in the Cardamom mountains, he was threatened by a military commander who said he would kill him over his investigations into illegal logging. He had to flee his hotel and rent a boat in the middle of the night that took him to safety.”
An investigation into the role of the military police is urgent, since they appear to have been acting on behalf of a company accused of involvement in illegal logging rather than investigating the claims of widespread illegal logging.
But an investigation is also needed into the role of Conservation International in the Cardamom Mountains. The illegal logging that Chut Wutty was investigating this week was taking place in an area where Conservation International is paying government forestry officials. Investigative journalists from the Phnom Penh Post have revealed that some of these officials are taking bribes to ignore illegal logging of rosewood from the forest.
If it is true that Chut Wutty was threatened back in 2001, then CI could (and should) have taken action to deal with illegal logging. Instead, CI’s attitude appears to be summed up by CI staff who told villagers living in the Cardamom Mountains that “we don’t care about who is cutting the forest, we just want to know how much was cut”.
Global Witness was kicked out of Cambodia after writing a series of reports exposing the level of corruption in the Cambodian government. Yesterday Global Witness put out a statement about Chut Wutty’s killing:
26th April 2012
We are shocked and devastated to learn of the killing of Chut Wutty, Director of environmental watchdog Natural Resource Protection Group (NPRG), in Cambodia today. Wutty was reportedly shot by members of the Military Police while engaged in field research into illegal logging and land seizures.
“Chut Wutty was one of the few remaining Cambodian activists willing to speak out against the rapid escalation of illegal logging and land grabbing which is impoverishing ordinary Cambodians and destroying the country’s rich natural heritage. The extent of the risks he and other activists face has been laid bare in the most shocking and tragic manner. He will be very sorely missed,” said Global Witness Director Patrick Alley. “The national government and international donor countries must publicly condemn his murder and take swift action to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Corruption and violence in Cambodia’s forest sector has been well documented over many years. The Cambodian government and international donors have collectively failed to tackle this problem, leaving activists from forest-dependent communities and local civil society groups like Wutty standing up for basic human rights, the environment, and the rule of law on their own.
The work of activists such as Chut Wutty should be publicly celebrated as heroic. Yet the reality in Cambodia is that members of the military, business and political elite, who prey on the country’s natural resource wealth for personal profit, view them as a direct threat. As this terrible incident shows, those who take on these vested interests face intimidation and even death.
The dangers faced by individual activists working on land and forest protection have always been severe; Wutty is not the first to be killed, and sadly, may not be the last. But the stakes for Cambodia’s people and its environment are now just as high, as forest and land clearance proceeds at a devastating pace.
The world must not stand by and simply watch. Cambodia’s international donor partners must prevail upon the government, as a matter of urgency, to open up its notoriously murky natural resource sector and hold the most powerful and violent illegal loggers and land grabbers to account.
PHOTO Credit: Global Witness.