The director of a well-known Cambodian environmental organization seeking to highlight government negligence and corruption over illegal logging was gunned down by military police on April 26.
Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, was shot and killed in a car after he refused to hand over his camera’s memory card to the policeman. He had been escorting two journalists from a local newspaper in a protected forest in Koh Kong Province, site of an illegal logging operation said to involve military officials.
Illegal logging has been a hot topic in Cambodia in recent months. It’s a practice that has expanded as it has become more profitable – there’s significant international demand for the fine-grained lumber from rosewood trees, which is used in a wide variety of ways, from the production of furniture in China to musical instruments to be sold in the United States.
However, activists say the logging of these rare trees causes significant environmental degradation, and it has undoubtedly contributed to Cambodia’s rapid deforestation rate, the third highest in the world according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Officially, the trees are protected by law. Unofficially, the underground business of logging is thriving in Cambodia. Indeed, the trade can be so lucrative that Cambodian loggers have been traversing the border into Thailand to cut down their rosewood trees, a growing concern to both Phnom Penh and Bangkok; Thai border guards routinely shoot and kill Cambodian loggers.
Another source of illegal logging is undertaken by companies who have been granted land concessions by the government. Activists like Chut Wutty have claimed that when enough money changes hands, official protection of the trees means little. Chut Wutty’s wife believes that her husband’s death was a plot by wealthy Cambodians who felt threatened by her husband’s activities.
“I think there were third persons involved with my husband’s killing. They prepared a plot to kill him because his work was affecting their interests. Those people were not happy with my husband and his work…so they planned to kill him when he went there again,” she told the Phnom Penh Post.
Yet if a cover up over logging and corruption was the intention, Chut Wutty’s death has had the opposite effect: it has been the lead story of both local newspapers every day since the shooting, including The Cambodia Daily, whose reporters with Chut Wutty in Koh Kong.
As a result of all this, the Cambodian government is likely to have to deal with logging directly in the coming weeks and months.
Meanwhile, questions have been raised over the dubious police report on the matter. The military policeman who allegedly shot the activist, In Ratana, was also killed. The preliminary report indicated that a bullet ricocheted off of Chut Wutty’s car and hit the policeman. However, it was later reported that In Ratana shot himself twice with his own AK-47 in an attempt at suicide: once in the stomach, and once in the chest.
Muddying the picture still further is the fact that the two female journalists accompanying Chut Wutty – Ukrainian/Canadian national Olesia Plokhii and native Khmer Phorn Bopha – were taken into police custody, after which they offered unclear reports of the night’s events to The Cambodia Daily. According to the journalists, they only heard two shots fired yet despite being only meters away they said they didn’t know for certain who fired the bullets.
The Cambodian government has announced that it will form a committee to investigate the events of the evening. However, the longer this drags on, the more questions will be asked. Is someone being protected by the military police and/or government? Why would In Ratana decide to end his own life? How many bullets were actually fired? And will there be statements from the two journalists?
Sadly, it seems quite possible that several hours of Cambodian police interrogation may mean that the truth of what happened will never be known.