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More murders: Conservationists allegedly killed by soldiers in Cambodia

  • Three people have been shot and killed by soldiers in northeastern Cambodia, apparently in retaliation for seizing equipment from illegal loggers.
  • A police report names three individuals as responsible for the killings: a border police officer and two border military officers.
  • Illegal logging and timber smuggling is commonplace between Cambodia and Vietnam, and officials from both countries are often complicit.
  • Around 200 land activists were murdered worldwide in 2016, up from 185 in 2015.

Three people have been shot and killed by soldiers in northeastern Cambodia, according to officials as reported by The Associated Press. Those killed were a conservation worker, a military policy officer and a forest protection ranger, reportedly because they had seized equipment from illegal loggers.

Keo Sopheak, a senior environmental official in Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province, said the attack happened Tuesday afternoon as the conservation team was patrolling in Keo Siema Wildlife Sanctuary. Keo Sopheak said of the men killed was a Cambodian employee of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The U.S.-based NGO is running a project at Keo Seima aimed at conserving its forests and wildlife through capacity-building initiatives with local communities.

According to a statement provided by WCS, those killed were Ministry of Environment ranger Teurn Soknai, military police officer Sek Wathana, and WCS SMART officer Thul Khna.

“Soknai was from the local Bunong Indigenous Community,” said Ken Serey Rotha, Country Program Director of WCS Cambodia. “He lived all of his life in Pu Cham village, O’riang District in Mondulkiri Province. He grew up surrounded by nature and wildlife and from a young age was aware of the importance of forests and excited by wildlife and conservation.  After gaining a bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management from National University of Management, Cambodia, he worked for WCS as an assistant to the ecotourism project in KSWS for four years. As part of that role he developed the Jahoo Gibbon Camp near Andong Kralong village, at which tourists stay and bring extra income to this indigenous community. Jahoo is the Bunong word for female gibbon, a species that Soknai was passionate and knowledgeable about, frequently enthralling visitors with Bunong stories about the animal.  He joined the Ministry of Environment (MoE) to become a ranger in mid-2017 because he saw what was happening to the forest that he loved and wanted to protect it. Soknai was well-regarded in his village, and respected by colleagues and visitors because his passion for nature was clear for all to see. He is survived by a wife and two daughters of one and four years.” Photo courtesy of WCS Cambodia
“Wathana, survived by his wife and daughters of two and five years, was born in Phnom Penh,” said Ken Serey Rotha, Country Program Director of WCS Cambodia. “After graduating from university he took a job at the Military Police as an Officer.  In 2016, he was moved to Keo Seima, and since 2017 he worked as a WCS counterpart and patrol team member. There he worked on the inter-agency patrol team with MoE rangers and the community patrol team, to protect the forest of KSWS. He was a hard-working and respected team member and will be missed by those who worked with him and knew him well.” Photo courtesy of WCS Cambodia
“Khna grew up in Pen Meas, a rural village of rice farmers in Somroung Commune, Tramkork District, Takeo Province,” said Ken Serey Rotha, Country Program Director of WCS Cambodia. “He was the first member of his family to go to university, and graduated from the Royal University of Agriculture a bachelor’s degree in Forestry Science in 2016. He then went to Israel on a scholarship for 10 months to study GIS (Geographic Information System).  Khna joined WCS in 2017, as part of the GIS and SMART (Spatial Monitoring And Reporting Tool) team at WCS. He loved being part of this dynamic, young team exploring new ways of using spatial data for conservation. Part of his work involved improving the quality of monitoring data gathered by field teams, which he accompanied to the forest. Despite only being with WCS for less than a year, he was a popular member of the team and will never be forgotten. He is survived by his wife and one daughter of two and a half months.” Photo courtesy of WCS Cambodia

Keo Sopheak said the three-person team had confiscated chainsaws and motorcycles from illegal loggers from Vietnam. He reportedly asserted that they were killed by soldiers: “The three were killed not by robbers or a guerrilla group but they were shot by government armed forces who backed the illegal timber cutting.”

A report sent by Mondulkiri police chief Ouk Samnang to National Police Chief Neth Savouen and read by The Associated Press names three border security officials as responsible for the killings: Phal Penh, Keut Vehar and Ngur. Phal Penh was reportedly a border police officer while Keut Vehar and Ngur were border military officers.

Illegal logging and timber smuggling is commonplace between Cambodia and Vietnam. According to the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), a UK-based NGO, around 300,000 cubic meters of logs were smuggled from Cambodia to Vietnam between November 2016 and May 2017.

Most of Mondulkiri province is officially protected, but satellite data from the University of Maryland show areas of heavy tree cover loss along its border with Vietnam. Officials on both sides of the border are often complicit, according to watchdog groups like EIA, and reap huge financial rewards for enabling timber trafficking.

Tuesday’s alleged killings are hardly the first. In 2016, the most recent year for which data are available, around 200 activists were murdered around the globe as they tried to protect land from extraction activities like logging and mining, according to UK-based watchdog organization Global Witness. That number was up from 185 in 2015.

“Every day, rangers and law enforcement staff risk their lives to protect wildlife and forests,” said Ken Serey Rotha, Country Program Director of WCS Cambodia. “We should not allow criminals to destroy the forests of Cambodia and to threaten and murder those working tirelessly to protect this country’s natural heritage.

“Soknai, Wathana, and Khna will always be remembered as conservation heroes.”


Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 1 to include information and photos from a statement issued by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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