A Killing Reverberates from a Cambodian Forest

blogspot.com 07-May-2012

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Chut Wutty was killed last month in a Cambodian forest that he was trying to protect from illegal logging. (CCHR)

May 6, 2012
By MARK MCDONALD
International Herald Tribunal (Paris, France)
The well-known Cambodian rights group Licadho says private logging and agricultural firms, mainly from Cambodia, Vietnam and Australia, now control nearly 10 million acres of land in Cambodia — about 22 percent of the country’s total land area.
HONG KONG — In another time, in a less connected era, if a lone protester had been murdered in a remote forest somewhere in Asia, it would have gone largely unnoticed and unremarked. A small voice is quieted, and the larger world moves on.

 
But for the past week in Southeast Asia, just such a killing has caused deep anger and outrage, along with a call for justice by forest-dwelling Cambodians, regional conservation groups and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

 
Chut Wutty, 48, a wiry fellow with skin the color of polished mahogany, was shot and killed on April 26 during a confrontation with uniformed Cambodian soldiers and military police officers.

 
Mr. Chut Wutty had been escorting two Cambodia Daily journalists through a forest in the Cardamom Mountains in north-central Cambodia. The forest, called Prey Lang, one of the last remaining primordial lowland forests in the world, was the focus of Mr. Chut Watty’s conservation efforts through his meagerly funded Natural Resource Protection Group.


 
Prey Lang, in the indigenous language, means simply “Our Forest,” and it covers twice the area of Greater London. A lovely documentary about the forest is here.

 
Recent photographs of Mr. Chut Wutty investigating illegal logging (and burning felled timber) are on the Lens blog. The pictures, made in February by Mathieu Young, a Los Angeles-based photographer, accompany text by Matt McCann.

 
In a detailed account of Mr. Chut Wutty’s killing — translated from the Khmer and published by The Cambodia Express News — the Cambodia Daily reporters Phorn Bopha, a Cambodian, and Olesia Plokhii, a Canadian, said they had stopped on an unpaved road in the forest to take pictures of a kind of yellow medicinal vine that grows there. They were then confronted by a security guard, two uniformed soldiers and three military police officers. One of the men wore a mask and reeked of alcohol, the reporters said.

 
As a verbal exchange grew angrier, Mr. Chut Wutty tried to drive away, but shots were fired into his battered red Toyota Land Cruiser and he was hit. The reporters fled into the forest, there was more shooting, and when they returned to the car they saw that Mr. Chut Wutty was bleeding and one of the military police officers was injured and lying in the road.

 
The other officers refused to call for medical help, the reporters said. About 90 minutes later, more police officials arrived to take away the bodies.

 
Other accounts of the shooting have been offered by the military and the police, although they all seem to agree that Mr. Chut Wutty and the reporters were initially confronted by In Rattana, a military police officer. It seems that Mr. In Rattana fired his AK-47 into Mr. Chut Wutty’s midsection; he was then killed either by Mr. Chut Wutty, who is said to have typically carried a pistol, or by the officer’s own bullets that ricocheted off the S.U.V.

 
Marcus Hardtke, another conservationist, was a close friend of Mr. Chut Wutty for more than a decade, according to The Phnom Penh Post. Mr. Hardtke said that Mr. Chut Wutty had always worked “more or less alone.”

 
 
“He was standing up against a corrupt system, he had no support from multimillion dollar NGOs, only the local people supported him.

 
I think the government lost a great chance here to really turn things around a bit, and in a way, Wutty was a soldier, he’s almost like a casualty of war, a war to sustain life in Cambodia. He made an impact. He made a real impact on the ground and in the minds of the people. That I’m sure of.”

 
The well-known Cambodian rights group Licadho says private logging and agricultural firms, mainly from Cambodia, Vietnam and Australia, now control nearly 10 million acres of land in Cambodia — about 22 percent of the country’s total land area. A useful investigation into aggressive logging and mining practices was published last month by The Cambodia Daily. Its report, “Carving Up Cambodia,” can be seen here as a pdf.

 
The filmmakers Fran Lambrick and Vanessa De Smet are making a film, “Rubbernaut,” about Mr. Chut Wutty, two forest dwellers and the clear-cutting of the Prey Lang forest to make way for rubber plantations. A trailer for the film includes interview excerpts with Mr. Chut Wutty.

 
“We are not afraid of the company’s threats,” a woman who lives in Prey Lang says in the film. “We risk our lives, but anyway, without the forest we will die.

 
“If we can protect the forest, we will live.”

 
In a commentary last week in The Guardian, after Mr. Chut Wutty’s death, Ms. Lambrick said that the killing “revealed just how far those people would go in the face of his courageous and untiring dedication to stop the destruction of Cambodia’s forests. It is a triumph that he kept pursuing justice in the face of threats and violence.”

 
“The question now is,” she said, “who sent the soldiers to apprehend Wutty?”

 
It remains unclear if In Rattana was working at the behest of the Timbergreen logging company, which has the concession to cut old-growth trees in the area. The police have said only that “a company” ordered security staff to confront Mr. Chut Wutty.

 
But a Phnom Penh Post investigation has identified the company as Timbergreen. Its registered majority owner, a Cambodian woman named Khieu Sar Sileap, told the paper she turned the company over to “other people” a year ago.

 
The U.N. agency sent a team to investigate after it learned of the killings. A spokesman said his agency was “very concerned” about Mr. Chut Wutty’s shooting, the fifth case this year that has involved “the use of live ammunition against communities and human rights defenders.”

 
Licadho, the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights are pursuing their own investigations. Amnesty International has decried the killing and also called for the protection of the two journalists.

 
Hun Sen, the president of Cambodia, also has ordered an inquiry, although only government officials are to be impaneled.