If you go down to the woods today…

May 9, 2012

Due to my current unipedal status, I’ve barely been outside for the past couple of weeks, so I don’t have a great deal I can talk about. Instead, I’ve got another example of the ugly side of this beautiful little country.

Cambodia has a recent history of violence so profound that stories which would be on the front pages in the UK hardly rate a mention here: acid attacks and stabbings, mass beatings, rapes, drownings and shootings seem to happen on a daily basis across the country, with hardly an eyebrow raised.

But the recent shooting of environmental activist Chut Wutty has shocked even the most hardened observers, with its casual brutality and its stench of blatant corruption.

Chut was a founder and director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, a small NGO dedicated to saving what little is left of Cambodia’s forests. Chut had taken a trip with two journalists to the southeastern province of Koh Kong to investigate “forest crimes”.

They were interested in a heavily forested area near a dam being built by the China Huadian Corporation (CHC) at a place called Stung Ressey Chrum Krom. The project has drawn widespread criticism, due to the impact the dam will have on the livelihoods of local villagers in the Southern Cardamom Mountain’s protected forest, as well as wildlife in the area.

Chut was seen taking photographs “without permission” and this, according to a military police spokesman, prompted a complaint from CHC. What happened next is disputed: a number of different versions have been put forward. What is undisputed is that Chut was stopped on a public road, and subsequently shot dead by Cambodia’s military police.

The military spokesman said the bullet that killed Chut Wutty was fired by a 32-year-old soldier called In Rattan, who, realising what he had done, turned his AK-47 assault rifle on himself, pulling the trigger twice, with bullets entering his abdomen and chest. Case closed, according to the authorities, with no small relief.

Then the story changed, with a security guard called Ran Boroth charged with ‘unintentional murder’ for killing soldier In Rattan while trying to disarm him.

The deputy director of the Cambodian Council of Ministers said that government and police investigations into the matter were now closed. “We don’t care about some NGOs who criticise us. What our committee has done is get the evidence that is true,” he claimed.

Ran Boroth is a security guard for a company called Timbergreen, which is licensed to clear the area around the dam project near where the shooting took place. Chut had repeatedly alleged that Timbergreen exploited clearing licences to cut down trees far outside of their permit areas.

If found guilty of unintentional murder, Ran will face between one and three years in prison and a fine of $500.

So, in short, a thorn in the side of logging interests was shot dead by a military policeman, in the interests of China and a corrupt military and business elite. But before he could be questioned and possibly charged, he shot himself, or was shot by someone working directly for a logging company, who faces a laughably small penalty.

Chut Wutty was eloquent, charismatic, capable and organised, and worked tirelessly with local and foreign media. Because of that, he was a high-profile irritant. He no longer is.

 

Chut’s death was the highest profile killing in Cambodia since the assassination of trade union leader Chea Vichea in 2004. In February this year three women who were campaigning for better working conditions at a factory that supplies German sportswear giant Puma were shot. They survived, but the alleged gunman, a district governor, has only been charged with the trifling offence of causing “unintentional injuries”.

Cambodia has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world, according to a 2005 report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. The country’s primary rainforest cover fell from over 70 percent in 1970 to just 3.1 percent in 2007, and deforestation is accelerating at an alarming rate.

A U.N. special human rights representative to Cambodia said that concessions for “sustainable logging” are a huge mistake. “If this process is not stopped, the country will face a human and economic tragedy which will affect the lives of not only the present but also future generations.”

Lao Mong Hay of the of the beleagured Cambodian Centre for Human Rights said Chut’s murder “has clearly shown how far the powerful are prepared to go to protect their own interests.”

It is chilling to see so clearly how much it is easier kill people who are willing to stand up and object, than to safeguard the rights of the majority of people in this impoverished country.

 

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