Koh Kong province – Deep in Koh Kong’s forested Mondol Seima district on Thursday, Chut Wutty, the founder of the Natural Resources Protection Group, and In Rattana, 32, a military police officer, were shot dead.
Chut Wutty, a forestry activist who has dedicated himself to preserving Cambodia’s disappearing forests since 2001, was traveling from Pursat to Koh Kong province to investigate illegal logging in the area.
Two journalists from The Cambodia Daily, Phorn Bopha, 27, and Olesia Plokhii, 27, were traveling with Wutty as part of a story on grass-roots efforts to prevent illegal logging.
This is their story on the death of the two men.
Traveling from Pursat to Koh Kong in Chut Wutty’s burgundy-colored Land Cruiser, the vehicle came to a halt in Mondol Seima district on the left-hand shoulder of a red earth dirt road. To the right side of the car was dense forest and to the left lay a row of wooden dwelling where people of all ages were milling about their daily chores. The dwelling nearest to where Chut Wutty stopped his car contained a man dressed in military fatigues lying in a hammock.
Chut Wutty had said to Ms. Plokhii and Ms. Bopha that they would not necessarily be welcome in the area, as it was known for logging.
“Let’s make this fast,” he had said to the reporters as they got out of the car.
Chut Wutty hung a black Canon camera over his shoulder and all three walked between two of the dwellings that fronted the road and into a clearance in the forest where in the near distances bundles of wood, which appeared to be yellow vine were stacked nearby to more dwellings.
Yellow vine is a type of creeper and in a processed form is used in traditional medicine for the treatment of stomach ailments.
Chut Wutty began taking pictures of the stacks of yellow vine and the dwellings. He was walking back toward his vehicle when a man in a black t-shirt and blue shorts approached and told him to stop taking photographs and to leave the area.
The situation was calm and Ms. Plokhii and Ms. Bopha, who had been interviewing locals about the vines for around 10 minutes, decided to walk back to the car.
When they arrived at the vehicle, Chut Wutty was talking to a soldier dressed in beige desert camouflage fatigues – the type commonly warns by troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Another man in civilian clothes was also standing with Chut Wutty.
Ms. Plokhii and Ms. Bopha quickly noticed that the mood among the three men was antagonistic. The soldier in the beige camouflage, who would not give his name or any other form of identify information, told Chut Wutty and the two female reporters they were not allowed to leave until they spoke to his superiors.
The soldier did not respond when Ms. Bopha asked whom he worked for and if he was a government soldier or an employee of a private company. He also would not say who his superior was, or when he would come to meet them. His order was that Chut Wutty and the journalists could not leave.
When Chut Wutty tried to get into his car the man in camouflage reached out his arm and prevented him from getting inside.
The situation grew more tense and Ms. Plokhii and Ms. Bopha implored the soldier to let them leaver, pointing out that they were on a public road and that he had not authority to hold them against their will.
But the soldier did not budge and what was a tense stand off soon after became physical when Chut Wutty tried to get into his car and was physically restrained by the man in camouflage. The two pushed each other, but blows were not exchanged.
Unable to get into his car, Chut Wutty appeared to resign himself to the wait for the soldier’s “superior” and went to the nearby dwelling to sit in a hammock.
Soon after two motorcycles pulled up with three men on board – two dressed in military police uniform and one in military fatigues, a black baseball cap with yellow trim and a surgical-style dust mask covering most of his face. All three carried AK-47 assault rifles and the man in the mask smelled strongly of alcohol.
Chut Wutty was not facing five men, where of whom were armed.
The group said they wanted Chut Wutty to go with them and see their “boss” in Koh Kong city. Voices were now starting to rise and Chut Wutty was ordered by the men to move away from his car.
None of the men would identify themselves or their so-called “boss.”
The soldier in the desert camouflage then started to insist that Chut Wutty hand over his camera.
Chut Wutty would not hand over the camera and, with the tension building to a new pitch, asked that Ms. Plokhii take photographs of the rapidly deteriorating situation.
When Ms. Plokhii raised a camera the man in the face reacted by ripping the camera from her hands. In doing so, Ms. Bopha was struck in the jaw by the man’s hand as he wrenched the camera away.
Chut Wutty announced to the group again that he was leaving and began walking toward the car. Mr. Bopha climbed into the back seat and Ms. Plokhii sat in the front passenger seat. Chut Wutty, however, was blocked by the men from getting into the car and a scuffle broke out resulting in Chut Wutty’s shirt being ripped open. The soldier in the facemask then went around to the back of the vehicle and reached into the back seat and took a second digital camera belonging to Ms. Plokhii.
Possibly because they were happy having two cameras in their possession, they allowed Chut Wutty to get into the driver seat. But to his despair, the engine failed to start. It appeared as if the battery was flat. Chut Wutty was now very agitated as he tried to start the car.
Desperately trying to get the car started, Chut Wutty asked Ms. Bopha and Ms. Plokhii to push the car in order to start the engine.
The soldiers and military police had now returned to the car.
Another loud verbal dispute began between the soldiers and Chut Wutty, who they were accusing of being arrogant and rude to them.
One of the soldiers said to Chut Wutty: “We are both slaves, we are both the same. Don’t be so arrogant.”
“I’m a slave to who?” Chut Wutty said in a loud retort.
The soldiers now began asking for a third camera they had spotted in the car. Chut Wutty told Ms. Plokhii to had over that camera too. It was his camera. An expensive Canon model. With another camera in their possession, the atmosphere stabilized somewhat.
Chut Wutty now focused on starting the engine. He asked Ms. Plokhii to help him jump-start the car. It worked. The engine kicked over and Chut Wutty got out of the car to put the hood down. But before he can get back into the driver seat, the soldiers had returned and turned off the ignition using the car key.
Several times he started the engine with the key, and several times a soldier reached in through the window and turned it off again.
Finally the engine started and the men began to edge back towards the dwellings. Chut Wutty shouted for Ms. Bopha get in the back seat and Ms. Plokhii walked around to get in the front passenger seat. But the soldiers stood in front of the car blocking Chut Wutty’s exit.
Seated in the back, Ms. Bopha was on the telephone with The Cambodia Daily’s editor-in-chief Kevin Doyle, explaining the situation, when two piercing sound of two loud gunshots ripped through the car. Ms. Plokhii had been getting in the passenger side of the car when the shots were fired and did not see where they had come from. Ms. Bopha also did not see the shooter.
Both Ms. Bopha and Ms. Plokhii dived out of the car and ran to across the dirt road and a few meters into the forest. As there was no more shooting, they remerged from the forest less than one minute later to find a military police officer lying wounded on the ground in front of the car. Chut Wutty was in the driver’s seat; his body slumped to one side.
The soldiers and military police had walked inside a nearby dwelling. They did not provide any aid to the two stricken men, both of whom still seemed to be alive.
Ms. Bopha asked one of the soldier to help save the military police officer in the road and Chut Wutty. He did not respond.
Ms. Plokhii reached into her backpack for a first aid kit and tried to administer treatment to Chut Wutty. But it was too late. Chut Wutty was now motionless. He had a bullet hole in his left knee and blood was seeping from a wound in his abdomen.
In Rattana, 32, the military police officer, had also stopped moving and appeared to have died.
Ms. Bopha and Ms. Plokhii did not feel safe. The soldiers reiterated that they were not allowed to leave. Terrified moved to take shelter with some villagers who had gathered inside one of the nearby dwellings.
Two more soldiers, also dressed in desert camouflage uniforms, then appeared from between two of the nearby huts and one of them said, in a voice loud enough for the journalists to hear: “Just kill them both.”
The same soldier then said to the other men that they should pull Chut Wutty’s car into the nearby forest.
The soldiers started searching the nearby forest and searching around and inside the car.
In Rattana’s body, now dead, was dragged unceremoniously to one of the nearby dwellings.
Not long after the shooting, another military police officer armed with an AK-47 rifle pulled up on a motorcycle. He was a friend of In Rattana. He saw his dead friend and angrily began to approach Ms. Bopha in a threatening fashion. But one of the soldiers prevented him from making any contact. He then wept at the side of his friend’s corpse.
Around 90 minutes after the double shooting, police and more military police turned up. They had been sent to investigate the reports of shooting. They offered the journalist food and water, and told them they were not being detained.
The soldiers present during the shooting were at the scene and were speaking to the newly arrived officers. Later, with court prosecutor present, they removed Chut Wutty body from the car. He was laid on white clear plastic and his belongings were placed with him. One of those items was a handgun. Neither of the journalists had seen any weapons in the previous two days they had traveled with him.
As darkness fell over the crime scene, Chut Wutty and In Rattana’s bodies were put in separate vehicles and taken to Koh Kong town.