The murder that shocked even Cambodia

The gunning down of environmental activist Chhut Vuthy, suspected to be in the service of business interests, is seen by many as another example of those in power forever silencing a voice of protest

In Cambodia, the murder of a high-profile environmentalist has sent shockwaves around a country which has never shaken-off its reputation for violence, corruption and a culture of impunity among the ruling political and moneyed classes.

THE FIGHT WILL GO ON: A woman holds a photograph of slain environmental activist Chhut Vuthy at his funeral last Monday. PHOTOS: WILL BAXTER/THE PHNOM PENH POST

Understandably, the shooting of Chhut Vuthy, 45, in a remote southern forest has outraged human rights groups and despite 14 years of peace has also reinforced perceptions of Cambodia as a lawless country still at war with itself.

But his death has wider ramifications and what exactly happened may never be known.

Chhut Vuthy was founder and director of the Natural Resource Protection Group, a small NGO dedicated to saving what's left of Cambodia's forests.

According to his friend Seng Sokheng of the Community Peace Building Network, Chhut Vuthy had decided on a trip to Koh Kong to investigate "forest crimes". The pair had worked together often and they wanted to capture illegal loggers on video.

The target was a heavily forested area near a dam being built by the China Huadian Corporation (CHC) at Stung Ressey Chrum Krom. The dam is one of four hydropower projects to be built in Koh Kong, labelled by Prime Minister Hun Sen as "a battery province". CHC officials had not commented on the killing by the time Spectrum went to press.

The projects have drawn widespread criticism due to the impact the dams could have on the livelihoods of local villagers, the Southern Cardomam's Protected Forest and wildlife in the area.

"Protecting the forest is like protecting our rice pot," Seng Sokheng told Spectrum.

Chhut Vuthy loaded up his Land Cruiser, picked up two journalists from The Cambodia Daily _ local reporter Phorn Bopha and her Canadian colleague Olesia Plokhii, both 27 _ and headed for the area, well known among environmentalists as a favourite for illegal loggers.

Along the way Chhut Vuthy was spotted taking photographs without permission and this, according to military police spokesman Kheng Tito, had prompted a complaint from the CHC.

On April 26 the burgundy Land Cruiser was travelling to Koh Kong when Chhut Vuthy decided to stop at a village in Mondol Seima district.

According to an extract published by The Cambodia Daily, Chhut Vuthy told the journalists they would not be welcome. There was a soldier, dressed in fatigues, lying in a nearby hammock. Chhut Vuthy wanted to take some photos and said: "Let's make this fast."

He focused on bundles of yellow vine, a creeper used in traditional medicine to treat stomach problems, when he was asked by a man in a T-shirt and blue shorts to stop and leave the area. The two journalists, who had been interviewing locals, approached him and they were joined by the two soldiers.

The mood quickly deteriorated. The soldiers demanded the three stay put until they had spoken with their superiors but they refused to say whether they worked for the government or a private company.

At that point Chhut Vuthy attempted to get back into his car but was physically prevented. The two women then asked the soldiers to let them leave and noted they were on a public road.

Chhut Vuthy is harassed and detained by men wearing Royal Cambodian Armed Forces uniforms in Koh Kong province in December, 2011. On April 26, Chhut Vuthy was travelling in the same area with two journalists from ‘The Cambodia Daily’ when he was shot and killed.

Another three soldiers, all armed with AK-47s, arrived on motorcycles, one smelled of alcohol and told Chhut Vuthy he was to go with them and meet "the boss" in Koh Kong city. The stand-off became tense, Plokhii attempted to take photos and as a soldier wrenched the camera from her, Phorn Bopha was accidentally struck on the lip.

Chhut Vuthy announced he was going to leave. Plokhii got into the front passenger seat and Phorn Bopha sat in the back, The Cambodia Daily reported.

A scuffle broke out and Chhut Vuthy's shirt was ripped while another camera belonging to Plokhii was snatched from the back of the car. At this point the soldiers relented and Chhut Vuthy got into the car and attempted to start the engine.

Hoping to push-start the car, he asked the women to get out and push but in the meantime the soldiers returned, another argument followed and Chhut Vuthy was accused of being rude and arrogant.

According to The Cambodia Daily report one of the soldiers said to Chhut Vuthy: "We are both slaves, we are both the same. Don't be so arrogant."

"I'm a slave to who?" Chhut Vuthy replied loudly.

Then a soldier noticed a third camera in the car. When it was handed over, tensions eased somewhat and with Plokhii's help Chhut Vuthy then attempted to start the car with jumper leads. Phorn Bopha wandered around the village. The Land Cruiser started. Chhut Vuthy closed the bonnet and they started to leave, but each time he turned the key a soldier leaned over and turned the engine off. Chhut Vuthy shouted to the journalists to get in the car as the soldiers retreated slightly. Again the car started and the three began to leave when the soldiers blocked their exit.

Sitting in the rear was Phorn Bopha who was on the phone to Kevin Doyle, the editor-in-chief of The Cambodia Daily. The sounds of two gunshots rang out.

Neither journalist saw what happened next, but according to an autopsy Chhut Vuthy was struck in the knee by a bullet from an AK-47. It ricocheted into his stomach and he died a short time later.

The two women bolted into the bush where they hoped locals would hide them. According to Phorn Bopha she heard soldiers discuss what to do next. This included moving the car and the body off the side of the road and into the forest where it would not be found.

They then discussed the two journalists and one soldier said chillingly in Khmer: "Just kill them both."

Eventually, more police arrived and the pair were held for questioning and released the next day but fears remain for their safety.

Kheng Tito, the military spokesman, said the bullet that killed Chutt Vuthy was fired by 32-year-old soldier In Rattan and realising what he had done he turned the assault rifle on himself, pulling the trigger twice with bullets entering his abdomen and chest.

"Vuthy and Rattana died from the same kind of bullets. In short, Rattana fatally shot Chhut Vuthy and shot himself to death," he told Spectrum.

Case closed, according to the authorities.

Chhut Vuthy speaks to a journalist in the offices of ‘The Phnom Penh Post’ earlier this year.

However, what they failed to comprehend was the deep outrage his death would cause.

Chhut Vuthy was extremely popular within the small world of NGOs and something of a media darling who worked tirelessly with local and foreign correspondents. His family insisted a third person was involved with the deaths and have demanded a full investigation.

In a separate, unconfirmed report, The Phnom Penh Post said Chhut Vuthy had been stopped by staff from a company called Timbergreen which has the licence to clear land at the dam site. It quoted sources and also said that Ran Boroth, a Timbergreen official, had reportedly been arrested as a suspect in the shooting of In Rattana.

Chutt Vuthy's death was the highest profile killing in Cambodia since the assassination of trade union leader Chea Vichea. He was shot dead in 2004, and two men widely believed to be innocent were jailed. Then in February, three women who were campaigning for improved working conditions at a factory which supplies the German sportswear giant Puma were shot.

The three survived but alleged gunman Chhouk Bandith, a district governor, has since been charged with the relatively minor offence of causing "unintentional injuries".

Naly Pilorge, director of of Cambodia's pre-eminent human rights group the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights, said the authorities had put forward at least two different versions of the events leading to the deaths of Chhut Vuthy and In Rattana, ''all of which contradict information we have collected''.

''The murder marks the seventh time since November, 2011, that state security forces around the country have opened fire during protests or on Cambodian citizens exercising their civil rights,'' she said. ''All of the perpetrators appear to have acted in the course of protecting business interests.''

The EU said it was deeply concerned, describing Chhut Vuthy as a ''well-known environmentalist and human rights defender'' adding the EU had witnessed ''an increased use of force, particularly the use of firearms''.

It urged the Cambodian government to take all necessary measures to protect those ''who seek to advocate peacefully for all legitimate causes, including the protection of the invaluable natural resources of Cambodia''.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, at an annual Asean summit just over a month ago, told 200 journalists that Cambodia had improved rapidly with more than a decade of peace behind it, and that he alone was in control of his nation's armed forces.

At the time it was seen more as an electioneering stunt. However, scholar and veteran campaigner, Lao Mong Hay, of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said Hun Sen only commands the armed forces in law. He requires their support and ''he has been in a way held hostage by them''.

''They have been able to abuse their power to have and then maintain a high lifestyle. Chhut Vuthy's death, as indeed other similar deaths such as that of trade unionist Chea Vichea's, has clearly shown how far the powerful are prepared to go to protect their own interests and those from who they are receiving benefits, that is, the rich,'' he told Spectrum.

At the same Asean press conference, Hun Sen _ who has promised a full inquiry into the incident _ went to great lengths to rebut claims that his government was being goaded into doing China's bidding amid billions of dollars in foreign aid from Beijing.

Yet Chutt Vuthy's death followed an order from CHC _ among China's top five energy producers _ to stop him from taking unwanted photographs.

Seng Sokheng says he has no doubts that his friend and colleague was indeed targeted by the rich and powerful around the dam site being built by CHC at Stung Ressey Chrum Krom.

But he remains defiant and with shades of Chhut Vuthy he added: ''His death is a threat to other forest activists in Cambodia. But we are not in fear, we are not worried. We will continue our work. We know that we are facing danger.''

ANOTHER VICTIM: Chea Vichea, above, was murdered in 2004, sparking outrage further fuelled by the jailing of two men for the crime who many believe are innocent. Cambodian trade unionists, above right, grieved at his funeral in Phnom Penh.

Mourners toss Cambodian riel notes into Chhut Vuthy’s coffin at his funeral last Monday.

About the author

Writer: Luke Hunt
Position: Writer