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Cambodian activists commemorate 11th anniversary of Chut Wutty’s murder

Activists donned masks bearing the face of slain environmentalist Chut Wutty while demonstrating in Phnom Penh.

Activists donned masks bearing the face of slain environmentalist Chut Wutty while demonstrating in Phnom Penh. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

  • April 26, 2023, marks 11 years since Cambodian environmental activist Chut Wutty was gunned down, with no one ever facing justice for his death.
  • Wutty was a frequent thorn in the side of Cambodia’s ruling elite, both in the government and in the security forces, for his repeated exposés of their role in illegal logging.
  • In a vigil and march in Cambodia to commemorate his death, fellow activists demanded the Ministry of Justice reopen the investigation into Wutty’s killing.
  • They also denounced the killings, arrests and prosecutions of environmental activists in recent years as a message from the government to stop.

PHNOM PENH — On the morning of April 26, a handful of activists took to the streets of the Cambodian capital to commemorate the 11th anniversary of environmentalist Chut Wutty’s assassination. Fifteen activists, some adorned in leaves, other sporting masks of Wutty’s face, gathered at Wat Botum Park in Phnom Penh at 9:30 a.m. holding photos of Wutty to demand the government more thoroughly investigate the murder that place in Koh Kong province on April 26, 2012.

Wutty, a prominent environmental activist who remained defiantly outspoken against deforestation and the politically connected companies that fueled it, was gunned down while investigating illegal logging that he had linked to the development of two Chinese-built hydropower dams, the Stung Russei Chrum and Stung Tatay. Both are situated in the southwestern province of Koh Kong, which sits at the heart of the Cardamom Mountains where deforestation rates have soared in tandem with infrastructure projects.

Activists took to the streets of Phnom Penh on the morning of April 26 to commemorate the anniversary of famed environmentalist Chut Wutty's murder.
Activists took to the streets of Phnom Penh on the morning of April 26 to commemorate the anniversary of famed environmentalist Chut Wutty’s murder. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

Trained by Russia, Wutty served in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) until 2000, but the corruption that was driving the ecological destruction that he saw as a soldier drove him to join Conservation International. He worked there for two years before going on to form his own NGO, the National Resources Protection Group.

His investigations into illegal logging and its perpetrators earned him many enemies within both the RCAF and the Cambodian government, but despite the physical abuse, threats and attempts at intimidation, Wutty endured in his cause, remaining undeterred to the day of his death.

“It shows you what one person can achieve if serious about nature conservation and not seeing it as a multimillion-dollar business scheme or a propaganda exercise,” said Marcus Hardtke, a veteran forest activist whose decades in Cambodia allowed him to work closely with Wutty. “Cambodia needs more Chut Wuttys, [but] unfortunately, leading activists like him only get recognized once they die on the job.”

The 246-megawatt Stung Tatay Hydroelectric Project
The 246-megawatt Stung Tatay Hydroelectric Project — one of the dams that Wutty died investigating — was completed in 2014. Photo by Andy Ball for Mongabay.

For Hardtke, the murder of Wutty was a result of taking on the extractive structures and hierarchies that feed on Cambodia’s natural resources.

“‘Nature conservation’ is a well-oiled business in Cambodia, a lot of show and propaganda,” he said. “It profits the players and guys in uniform, but when you scratch the surface, you see the real situation, the mindless greed, the corruption and the mafia-like structures behind it. As soon as someone is exposing this, the regime and its puppets get alarmed and try to silence these voices.”

On that fateful day in April 2012, Wutty had been traveling through the western Cambodian provinces of Pursat and Koh Kong with two journalists from the now-shuttered Cambodia Daily. Reporters who witnessed Wutty’s murder recounted the events immediately leading up to and after the shooting that would see one of Cambodia’s most prominent environmentalists — and one military police officer — fatally shot. The investigation was brief, with Rann Borath, head of security at Timbergreen, the company Wutty had been investigating, serving just two weeks in prison following a swift trial where prosecutors alleged that In Rattana, a military police officer, shot Wutty and was then killed when Borath attempted to take his weapon.

Environmental activists staged a short demonstration alongside a busy road in Phnom Penh.
To mark the 11th anniversary of Chut Wutty’s murder, environmental activists staged a short demonstration alongside a busy road in Phnom Penh. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

Prior to his murder, Wutty had garnered a reputation in Cambodia for his continued environmental investigations and activism, which generated mounting pressures from powerful individuals and companies whose trails of environmental destruction his work exposed.

San Mala, one of the activists present at the Phnom Penh demonstration to mark the anniversary of Wutty’s murder, said the small group of environmentally focused activists were delivering a petition to the Ministry of Justice to reopen the investigation into Wutty’s murder.

“We have marched from Wat Botum pagoda to the Ministry of Justice,” said Mala, who was jailed for more than 15 months in August 2015 for his own campaign against sand mining in Cambodia. “The aim is to submit our petition to demand that the ministry finds justice for Chut Wutty … we demand the ministry finds the person who was really behind the murder.

“A lot of activists are killed and they get no justice,” Mala added. “The government never investigates or finds the real killer or brings them to the court, so it is time for the government to reform their justice system because a lot of Cambodian people, I think they don’t believe in the courts anymore.”

In spite of this lack of faith in Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt judiciary, Mala and other activists delivered their petition to the Ministry of Justice. Previously, when environmental activists have attempted to petition the government, authorities stepped in. But the Ministry of Justice accepted the petition, which was hand-delivered around 11 a.m. by two activists allowed into the ministry’s compound.

The small group of environmental activists vowed to continue fighting to protect Cambodia's natural resources as Wutty did.
The small group of environmental activists vowed to continue fighting to protect Cambodia’s natural resources as Wutty did. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin declined to answer questions on the petition or whether the ministry would further investigate Chut Wutty’s case, saying that he was “on mission in [South] Korea.”

Previous efforts to reopen the case have repeatedly failed over the past 11 years, but it is Wutty’s seemingly fearless dedication, activists at the Phnom Penh vigil said, that they hope to replicate in the ongoing fight for the preservation of Cambodia’s natural resources.

“I came here today because I feel like Chut Wutty was a hero protecting our natural resources and has not received his justice yet,” said Phun Keorasmey, an activist with the now-outlawed environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia.

Keorasmey was also arrested in September 2020, shortly after joining Mother Nature Cambodia, for helping to stage a one-woman protest in Phnom Penh over the infilling of the city’s lakes using sand mined from the Mekong River. She was released in November 2021, but has continued her environmental activism, despite ongoing threats of legal action from the authorities.

“The judiciary accused Wutty of being the first to shoot and they expect people to stay calm, to say nothing, but by contrast we will not be calmed, we will not forget Chut Wutty and we want the judiciary to reinvestigate the case,” she said.

She added that Cambodia’s natural resources continue to be consumed by the country’s elite, with key rivers dammed at the expense of riparian fishing communities throughout the region, riverbanks collapsing in a phenomenon that researchers have linked to excessive sand mining, and rampant deforestation tied to land grabs and logging operations spearheaded by powerful individuals.

“We’re losing trees every day and the only ones to benefit are those high-ranking elites, those who are in power take benefits from the forest, while ordinary people are again affected,” Keorasmey said.

Forest cover loss GIF between 2012 and 2021 in Cambodia.
Forest cover loss between 2012 and 2021 in Cambodia. Image by Global Forest Watch.

Since Wutty’s death in 2012, Cambodia lost 781,000 hectares (1.93 million acres) of primary forest, according to Global Forest Watch, although numbers for 2022 haven’t been published yet.

But while Cambodia’s loggers and those who fund them remain continuously at work in gutting the country’s forests, groups like Mother Nature Cambodia and the Cambodia Youth Network, which organized the Phnom Penh vigil, along with other activists remain committed to their cause, despite the chilling effect that high-profile murders and prosecutions have had on public discourse over environmental issues.

“We have people like Chut Wutty or Kem Ley who die because of their dream to protect our natural resources, but we don’t feel scared when we see their deaths,” Keorasmey said. “In contrast, their death is our inspiration to continue their work. We are proud to do it, we do not feel fear, even if someday we lose our lives like they did, we would not feel regret.”

Mala agreed that such assassinations and the increase in attacks — both physical and legal — documented against activists in recent years are a message from the government to stop. But the work, he said, is far from done.

“I think the aim of killing Chut Wutty and other environmental or social activists is to stop our activism and to make people feel afraid, but they cannot achieve their goal,” Mala said. “Even though a lot of people get arrested and yet still, we continue our activism because we want to reform our society and we want a real democracy in our country.”

Banner image: Activists donned masks bearing the face of slain environmentalist Chut Wutty while demonstrating in Phnom Penh. Photo by Gerald Flynn/Mongabay.

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