Dozens of admirers of conservationist Chut Wutty withstood a few rounds of rough handling by Phnom Penh security guards to mark the fifth anniversary of the outspoken environmental activist’s fatal shooting on Wednesday by gathering along the city’s riverside for a brief prayer session.
About half of the 40-odd participants who started arriving at the Preah Ang Dangker shrine in front of the Royal Palace came wearing T-shirts bearing the activist’s face and a defiant message on the back—“Chut Wutty five years without justice.”
The tireless environmental activist, who had frequently tangled with authorities over the years, was shot dead on April 26, 2012, while investigating illegal logging in the Cardamom Mountains of Koh Kong province. Many Cambodians do not believe the government’s official account of the shooting and have continued calling on authorities to reopen the investigation.
After taking turns praying to Chut Wutty’s spirit inside the tiny riverside shrine on Wednesday afternoon, some of the gathered joined and raised their hands while chanting his name and sat down in a circle for a blessing by a few like-minded monks.
“It has now been five years since my father’s death, but justice has not been found,” said Chut Wutty’s 18-year-old daughter, Cheuy Solina. “Please, government, find justice for him.”
Ahead of the event, City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey said authorities would “take action” against any participants because the organizers, including the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN) and the Prey Lang Forest Network, had not given prior notice. The organizers argued that their event was exempt from rules on prior notice because it was a religious gathering.
At least 40 Daun Penh district security guards were deployed around the shrine in anticipation of the gathering, backed up by some 20 police officers stationed nearby. The guards told the participants to leave, and on a few occasions pushed and pulled a few of them unprovoked and tore up a handful of the Chut Wutty photographs they had brought.
But in the end, the guards allowed the event to play out, possibly because the numbers were far below the 200 the organizers had said to expect. CYN president Tim Malay said many would-be participants were scared away by the city’s threat of violence.
Before the event, organizers also said that they would watch a one-hour documentary about Chut Wutty—of which public screenings are banned—en masse on their smartphones. Only a few of them could be seen watching the film on their phones, however, and only for a few minutes.
“Personally, I do not expect the government to find the real killer, but I still want them to continue to investigate,” said Ul Vann, a CYN member.
Contacted afterward, Phnom Penh deputy governor Khuong Sreng said City Hall had decided to tolerate the gathering but warned that the organizers would be brought in and “advised” against such events if they tried it again.
About 100 villagers also marked Wednesday’s anniversary in Preah Vihear province, where Chut Wutty had helped organize a number of forest patrols to root out illegal loggers, by gathering at a hilltop shrine in Rovieng district.
Chut Wutty was traveling with two Cambodia Daily reporters at the time of his death. The shooting happened after a security guard for the Timber Green logging company and several military police and soldiers confiscated their cameras and would not let them leave the area.
The government claims Chut Wutty was shot accidentally by a military police officer who was then immediately shot dead himself while tussling over the murder weapon with the security guard.
The courts soon closed the investigation and sentenced the guard to a two-year prison sentence, but released him after a few months.
Rights groups slammed the investigation as inadequate and called it a cover-up.