The director of a well-known Cambodian environmental organization seeking to highlight governmental negligence and corruption regarding the issue of illegal logging was brutally gunned down by military police this past Wednesday night.
Chut Wutty, director of the Natural Resource Protection Group (and a personal friend of this author), 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 which has expanded as it has become more profitable. There is a high international demand for the fine-grained lumber from rosewood trees: it is used in a wide variety of means from the production of furniture in China to musical instruments to be sold in the U.S.
However, activists say the logging of these rare trees can cause widespread and endemic environmental destruction and degradation. It has contributed to Cambodia’s rapid deforestation rate, the third highest in the world according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Officially, the trees are protected by law. Unofficially, the underground business of logging is thriving in Cambodia.
The trade can be so lucrative that Cambodian loggers have been traversing over the border into Thailand to cut down rosewood trees, a growing concern to both Phnom Penh and Bangkok. Thai border guards routinely shoot and kill Cambodian loggers, a response which has not as of yet served as a deterrent.
Another source of logging is done by companies who have been granted land concessions by the government. Activists like Chut Wutty have claimed that when enough money changes hands, the fact that the trees are protected does not mean a whole lot.
Chut Wutty’s wife believes that her husband’s death was a plot by wealthy Cambodians because of the threat posed to them by the late activist. “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.
If there were forces plotting his demise in an effort to cover up the issue of logging and corruption, Chut Wutty’s death will surely have an opposite effect; it has been the lead story of both local newspapers every day since the shooting, including The Cambodia Daily, whose reporters were the ones with Chut Wutty in Koh Kong. Moreover, discourse on the government and military’s intimidation methods is now locally trending.
As is the case with most activists who are killed while working on their issue, their cause becomes a rallying cry for others. The Cambodian government is likely to have to deal with the logging subject more head-on now in the coming weeks and months.
In addition to his wife, Chut Witty leaves behind two daughters and a son.