In Cambodia, 5 Years After Chut Wutty’s Killing, Questions Remain

The late environmental activist Chut Wutty was prepared for his own death — “any time.”

Wutty lived with threats from interests threatened by his activism, according to Sam Chanthy, his wife. He was threatened with verbal warnings and live rounds. His children, he was told, would be kidnapped.

On April 26, 2012, Chanthy’s brother-in-law called at 2 p.m. to say, “Brother Wutty was shot dead in Koh Kong.” He was 46.

Chut Wutty was shot once, fatally, while in the driver’s seat of his red Jeep. He was deep in the forests of Koh Kong province, tracking reports of illegal logging and land grabs. With him were two reporters from The Cambodia Daily who survived.

“Some loggers even warned him that … they would not just kill him easily,” Chanthy said. “They swore to nail him to a cross, and cut his body into pieces until he died.”

According to official accounts cited in the verdict issued six months after his death, Wutty’s car was stopped by military police and security guards hired by Timbergreen Company, the concessionaire receiving a state-granted permit to sweep the forest at Veal Bei, making way for the construction of Russey Chrum mega hydropower dam.

Wutty later quarreled with In Ratana of the military police and Rann Borath, the company’s guard, over requests from Ratana and Borath that Wutty and the reporters surrender memory cards containing photos from the Timbergreen-operated site.

Ratana fired a round from his AK-47 killing Wutty, according to the verdict. Ratana died by the same rifle that Rann Borath grabbed in an attempt “to stop him from further shooting.”

Borath received a suspended sentence of 18 months and was released soon after the verdict.

‘A very brave man’

“He was a serious man who didn’t like to talk much, but he took very good care of his family,” said Chanthy, his wife.  The couple had one son and two daughters.

“He teaches his kids with soft and peaceful approaches. He never took even a single hit on his kids — even if he was angry. He always talked in sweet words to his children.”

Born in a rural village in Kandal Province as Cambodia was collapsing into decades of devastation, Wutty went to Russia for military studies, then returned to serve in the Cambodia’s Ministry of National Defense as military trainer.

He quit that job in the early 2000s to serve as the country deputy director for the global transparency watchdog, Global Witness, before the government closed its Cambodia office. Wutty then founded the National Resources Protection Group and campaigned against the illegal logging nationwide until the day he died.

“He was a very brave man,” Patrick Alley, co-founder of the Global Witness, told VOA.

Legacies and inspiration

Wutty was the prime architect of grassroots community-centered campaigns that still patrol the endangered Prey Lang densely forested area, one of Southeast Asia’s largest rainforests.

He helped found the Prey Lang Community Network (PLCN) in 2007, when many Cambodians didn’t even know of the existence of Prey Lang, a forest in north-central Cambodia that spans four provinces and many traditional villages.

“From the period we worked with him, he was a committed and can-do person,” said Seng Sok Heng, spokesman of the award-winning PLCN.

“What he loved the most was to work with people at the communities, sharing experiences, knowledge and senses of mobilization and advocacy with them,” Sok Heng told VOA.

“He was an important man to Prey Lang. Without him, we cannot imagine if this forested area could exist until today.”

Danger continues

In a 2014 speech, President Barack Obama took the stage to honor slain civil society workers around the world — including Wutty.

Those threats persist. Even though the Cambodian government has given more powers to the Environment Ministry and formed a national ad hoc task force led by the country’s top military commander, large-scale illegal logging continues.

Two Environment Ministry-employed rangers were shot dead while they were tracking illegal logging in the northern Preah Vihear province.

In March 2016, Phorn Sopheak, a 22-year-old PLCN member, was attacked with machete in an “unsuccessful murder attempt” as she patrolled forests.

“We continue to be threatened by timber traders and the colluded officials, so we are still facing dangers even though there has been a move from the national-level for state-community cooperation to protect the environment,” Sok Heng of the PLCN told VOA. “We still find it difficult to work.”

In Koh Kong province where Wutty died, environmental activists have been targeted by legal cases filed because of their opposition to state-permitted mineral schemes.

“They [environment activists] can still be facing legal suits against them for their actions,” said In Kongchit, Koh Kong provincial human rights coordinator for the local rights group Licadho.

But Wutty’s activism and heroism continue to inspire, according to Kongchit, and youth-driven movements are spreading awareness of the need to participate to protect the environment.

‘Elusive justice’

Wutty’s family and members of Cambodia’s civil society movement remain unconvinced by the Koh Kong provincial court claims that it based its verdict on a “reliable” investigation.

In Kongchit, who participated in the autopsies of Wutty’s and In Rattana’s bodies at the Koh Kong Hospital the day they died, called the court’s conclusion “elusive justice” for Wutty.

“I’ve never thought the evidence and the court’s findings were real. They’re made-up and artificial,” said Chut Wutty’s eldest son Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey, 25, who recently took over the former position of his father as director of the Natural Resource Protection Group (NRPG).

“What I want to find the most is who ordered the killing of my father. He had been followed for so long, so I think there was someone ordered to kill him,” Reaksmey said.

“We want to see the mastermind and the real killer to get prosecuted. I’m still hopeful,” he added, “because there is no secret in this world.”

VOA Khmer Service reported this story.

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