Forestry activist Chut Wutty, 46, was fatally shot by military police during an altercation in Koh Kong yesterday.
A military police officer, In Rattana, 32, was also shot to death in the scuffle, which came after military police and soldiers detained the environmentalist and two reporters from The Cambodia Daily and confiscated their cameras. Mr. Wutty had been taking photos of suspected illegal logging activity near the border between Pursat and Koh Kong provinces in Mondol Seima district. After handing over the cameras, Mr. Wutty repeatedly tried to drive away, telling the authorities they had no legal right to detain his group.
It was not clear as of yesterday night who was responsible for the shooting. Police and eyewitnesses gave conflicting reports, while officials stressed that an investigation was still pending.
“Who shot first? Who shot back? [Military police] told me Chut Wutty shot the first shot at the military police officer. That is the official information I got,” said Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak. Lieutenant General Sopheak said that the investigation was still ongoing and that his information thus far came only from “one side.”
“Measures will be taken. Everyone involved will be investigated and we will put it to the court for final justice,” he continued. “Maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m right, but I really regret that two people died. I share condolences with the family of my compatriots. This story should not have happened and I pray the two will rest in peace.”
Koh Kong deputy provincial police chief Sin Sen gave a differing account, saying he received reports that Mr. Rattana shot Mr. Wutty during an escalating “verbal clash” and later killed himself.
A local villager speaking on the condition of anonymity because of threats to his safety, gave yet another account. The villager, who said he witnessed the shooting, said Mr. Wutty was filming logging from inside his car near a newly established Chinese company, enraging local military police. While demanding his camera memory, Mr. Rattana threatened Mr. Wutty with a gun, which the environmentalist then grabbed and fired at the officer. Military police then shot Mr. Wutty.
Mr. Wutty’s nephew, Chuon Phirun, a prominent environmentalist in his own right, returned last night from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh with his uncle’s body.
“He was shot once-the bullet traveled from his knee to his stomach and he died inside his car,” said Mr. Phirun.
The Cambodia Daily journalists present at the scene, Phorn Bopha and Olesia Plokhii, were uninjured and as of last night were being questioned by military police in Koh Kong.
A prominent environmental campaigner, Mr. Wutty had done stints at Global Witness and Conservation International, but it was his role as founder of the Natural Resources Protection Group that garnered him the most attention–and ire.
One of the chief architects of November’s large-scale Prey Long march, Mr. Wutty pushed for citizen-centered activism. He encouraged patrols where hundreds of villagers confiscated saws, detained loggers, and sent hundreds of cubic meters of illegally logged timber up in flames.
Over the years, Mr. Wutty developed a more confrontational style, opting to work outside the bounds of traditional NGOs. In a recent interview, he spoke of patrolling “by car, by moto, and sometimes by helicopter,” and keeping a close watch on “businessmen [loggers]… to know how strong the enemy is.”
“He’s not a typical NGO man sitting in the office, he was always more interested in achieving something rather than going through the motions,” said Marcus Hardtke, an independent environmentalist and close friend of Mr. Wutty’s.
“He’s better at that than anyone I know. He knows how to analyze the situation, especially in the Southwest [where] he knows everybody and everybody knows him. Usually he’s successful with this. But of course you make big enemies… Since there’s nobody else down there who cares about law, really, about what’s going on or should be going on, that makes it more difficult. But he was never careless. He was forceful but never careless.”
Mr. Hardtke said he hadn’t heard of any threats directed at Mr. Wutty lately “because they all know threats just won’t work with him,” but noted the inherent dangers of Mr. Wutty’s work.
Multiple rights groups yesterday condemned Wutty’s shooting and urged an immediate investigation of the circumstances surrounding it. “We demand the authorities to investigate and arrest the perpetrator and the people involved,” the Cambodian Club of Journalists said in a statement. Adhoc called on the government to “demonstrate its commitment to protect both environmental activists and protected natural areas and hold those who are responsible for illegal acts to account, regardless of their rank or social standing.”
“The tragic death of Wutty is yet again evidence of the danger that anyone risks attempting to protect Cambodia’s land and forests and expose the underlying corruption and rights abuses which lie at the heart of their mismanagement,” said Global Witness in a statement.
“The stakes remain high for any activists working on land and forest protection in Cambodia; Wutty is not the first to be killed for this work, and sadly, may not be the last. But the stakes for Cambodia’s environment and people are even higher if the major forest and land clearance we are witnessing continues.”
Observers also said they feared the death could become the latest addition to a lengthy list of unsolved crimes targeting government critics, while some wondered whether it would have a chilling effect on the work of other NGOs.
“It sends a message. It sends a clear message to anyone who wants to fight this, to break up illegal logging,” said SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, adding that members of parliament would be launching their own investigation.
Speaking from Phnom Penh shortly after learning of the shooting, 19-year-old Chuy Oudam Raksmey said he was devastated to hear of his father’s death.
“I got the news around one o’clock but dared not report to my mother. Finally I told her and I couldn’t stop crying,” he said, weeping. “I lost everything.”
In addition to his son, Mr. Wutty is survived by a wife and two adult daughters.