May 12, 2012
By Guy De Launey
BBC News Magazine
Phnom Penh -- The death of an environmental activist, shot dead by police, has galvanised his campaign against deforestation and illegal logging in a scenic part of Cambodia.
Ratanakiri is a beautiful province in the north of this country - with volcanic lakes, waterfalls and huge areas of unspoiled forest.
Most of the people who live there belong to indigenous hill tribes who worship spirits in nature.
But peace has brought smooth-surfaced roads and outsiders to rural parts of the country that were once remote.
The hill tribes complain that the newcomers try to trick them out of their traditional lands - and hack down the trees which make up what they call the "spirit forests".
A young man from the Tampeun people told me he knew where loggers were at work - and volunteered to show me. So we jumped into a battered pickup - and slithered along a narrow trail through the forest.
Suddenly we burst out into a clearing. And immediately it seemed that we had made a horrible mistake.
Among piles of cut timber, there was a group of young men who did not look thrilled to see us. Several were dressed in military fatigues - and at least a couple were toting AK-47 rifles. The only way out was behind us.
I jumped out of the car, smiled and shouted hello.
A slightly older man turned and beamed broadly. It turned out that not only did he speak English, but he was an avid listener to the BBC. Instead of being held at gunpoint, we were invited to lunch.
I remembered this incident, a few years on, when I heard about the violent death of Chut Wutty.
I knew him a little - he used to be a soldier before getting a job with the British environment monitor Global Witness, which meant he saw at first-hand the devastation of Cambodia's forests.
When his employers were kicked out of Cambodia for alleging connections between the government and illegal loggers, Wutty set up his own organisation.
He helped indigenous people to form forestry patrols to seek out and chase away illegal loggers. If they found piles of cut timber, they would burn it - making sure those who destroyed the trees would not not profit.
Wutty was good at PR as well as direct action. He brought hundreds of tribe members to Phnom Penh, where they painted their faces blue and dressed up as characters from Avatar.
Just like the aliens in the film, their forest world was being destroyed by greedy outsiders.
All these antics meant that Wutty was not short of enemies.
Some of them were extremely well-connected - holders of land concessions that activists said were being used as cover for illegal logging. But he had powerful friends as well - thanks to his military connections.
So it is ironic that he died at the hands of a military police officer.
And from a personal point of view it is haunting - because he was doing much the same as my young Tampeun guide in Ratanakiri.
Wutty was showing two journalists around an area which he believed was being illegally logged.
They ran into military police who demanded their cameras.
A heated argument developed, then the journalists heard gunshots and fled into the forest. When they emerged, Wutty was dead in the driver's seat of his Landcruiser and a military police officer lay prone on the ground.
As the journalists were surrounded by other men in uniforms, they overheard one say "just kill them". Thankfully that did not happen - they are both safe, if traumatised.
I do not believe Wutty was deliberately targeted. But his death is the most chilling example of what seems to be an increasing willingness to use armed force against protesters.
Just in the past three months, guards at a rubber plantation shot and wounded land protesters. The governor of Bavet city is facing charges for shooting at demonstrating garment factory workers.
And, in a reversal of the archetype, police threw stones at residents during an eviction in Phnom Penh.
The UN's visiting special envoy for human rights in Cambodia told me these were worrying developments.
Surya Subedi went to pay his respects to Chut Wutty's family and he said that bullets were just one part of the threat to protest and freedom of expression in Cambodia.
"People seem to be exercising self-censorship - they're afraid of being prosecuted for defamation and incitement," he told me.
"I've shared my recommendations with the government - but the implementation is frustratingly slow and I'm disappointed with the progress made."
The government may be aware this is a slippery slope. It has suspended all future land concessions, though not those already in place.
Chut Wutty would probably have taken that as progress, but not victory. The indigenous people he worked with have promised they will continue the movement he started.
And that perhaps is the most fitting tribute to that intense, unorthodox and courageous man, who knew the dangers of his job and was prepared to accept them.
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