An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission

I wrote in my last article in this space of the accumulating circumstances that compel a change in the current leadership of Cambodia. In Cambodia, the rich are getting richer while one-third of the population lives on less than US$0.61 per day. Many survive on what they scavenge from garbage dumps only blocks from the lavish homes of the wealthy. Those who live in rural areas, too, are losing economic ground, and most are impoverished.

Considering Cambodia’s estimated annual population growth rate of 1.7 percent (compared with France, 0.5 percent or England, 0.2 percent) and the slow increase of Cambodia’s GDP per capita, it would seem that Cambodians will continue to struggle against a tide of poverty for the foreseeable future.

Odom, an unemployed university graduate in Cambodia, armed with World Bank statistics on Gross National Income per capita between 2007 and 2010, reminds me that Cambodia remains the poorest country among its neighbors: a Lao is on average richer than a Cambodian by a ratio of 1.24 to 1, a Malay, 10.51 to 1, and a Singaporean, 53.03 to 1; in 2010, a Thai had an income 1.4 time higher than the incomes of a Vietnamese, a Lao and a Cambodian combined.

Martin Hutchinson’s “Cambodia must solve two big problems for takeoff” (Reuters) asserts that “Feeding, educating and housing ever more Cambodians will be a challenge,” but zeroes in on “Corruption as the real enemy” and cites Transparency International’s Corruption Index ranking of Cambodia as among “the worst global slums.”

Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), a founder of Western civilization, warns in Politics, “The passion for equality is at the root of revolution.” An established general theory links inequality and violent rebellion. Students of conflict argue that economic inequality is a major cause of dissent, and that poverty and deprivation lead the disadvantaged person to revolt.

Land concessions

I have written here and elsewhere about Cambodia’s current land concession policies that lead to land conflicts, mass evictions of people from their homes and land, violations of individual and property rights, among other issues. After all is said, I argue for change of the present status quo.

Last week, I watched a video titled, “Illegal logging by Cambodia: What the (Prime Minister Hun Sen) says and what the PM does”, posted on the website of opposition leader Mu Sochua. The logging video is informative and includes a professionally presented film embedded in the video, “The Green Deal in Cambodia,” in English and with subtitles. Ms. Sochua wrote on her website: “For land and forests in Cambodia, we demand accountability of the head of the government.”

Anarchic logging

The video opens with a collage of news clippings on the massive logging operations, followed by dramatic night scenes of trucks with headlights carrying huge logs. In the background one hears Premier Hun Sen giving an address in Khmer with appropriate English subtitles–Khmer language being more vulgar than the English subtitles, I must add. The audio clips are eventually succeeded by videoed segments of the premier delivering this speech.

The video is undated, as is the embedded film with English narration. What the posting makes clear, however, is that the deforestation of Cambodia has been under way for decades, documented by the World Bank and other agencies, and has continued at an accelerated pace during the regime of Hun Sen. It is under the current regime, in fact, that the denuding of Cambodia’s forests has not only increased, but has been done for no purpose other than to enrich members of the ruling party.

Aware, perhaps, of the emotional impact of thousands of acres of tree stumps, Hun Sen is heard in the video on Mu Sochua’s website to decry the very destruction he has sanctioned: “I admit the biggest mistake of my life was management of the forests … from ’93 to ’98. It was a big mistake,” he declares. “From ’79 to ’93, I wasn’t responsible because I didn’t let people log,” he said, “But from ’93 to ’98 it was incredible,” and the video shows more night scenes of trucks carrying huge felled trees. “Consider that forestry is the life of this government” he said, and, “I’m not asking for a lot. Let’s protect the forests that we still have.”

Juxtaposed with Hun Sen’s hypocritical remarks is the film “The Green Deal in Cambodia,” narrated in English: “Cambodia is one of the most forested countries in Southeast Asia,” but the forests “disappeared at an alarming rate” in the last three decades.

According to the narration, under Pol Pot’s regime forests were cleared to increase farm acreage (1975-79), but the film report claims that during the 1990s, the forested lands that had survived the Khmer Rouge clear-cutting” were given as logging concessions to Cambodian and foreign companies many of which enjoyed close ties with senior officials.” The report alleges the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces are heavily involved in anarchic logging and provide protection and labor for logging operations.

“Corruption and the absence of law enforcement ensured that the profits from the logging benefited only a powerful elite,” says the narrator, as “most taxes due on the timber from concessions were not paid and the logging contributed nothing to Cambodia’s development.”

The video cites a 1998 World Bank report finding that Cambodia’s forest cover had been reduced by 30 percent in the previous 30 years, and if logging continued at this same rate the country’s forest reserves would be exhausted by 2003 (sic). The video also cites a 1999 Asian Development Bank report describing Cambodia’s forest management as a total system failure.

Three years after the World Bank report, the video says, the government announced a ban on all logging concession activities effective January 1, 2002.

The video then returns to Hun Sen’s speech (undated): “If the logging companies still don’t listen, take away their licenses.” He said he read in The Cambodia Daily that morning that, “many companies won’t (don’t) obey the order of the Ministry of Agriculture. “Just you try,” he shouted, “If you aren’t going to obey, just you try.”

“If I don’t take way your concession and shut down your factory, I will cut off my head (and throw it away),” he announced dramatically.

Cold-blooded murder

Cambodians have vehemently protested the loss of the country’s forests. Memorable protests have occurred in recent months such as the Prey Lang protest. In the forefront of this protest movement, Cambodian Green activist Chut Wutty has been an outspoken leader. In fact, I quoted Wutty in my March 15 article for the AHRC, when he spoke of the leasing to a Chinese firm of land in Cambodia’s Botum Sakor national park in Koh Kong province. Wutty said, “You think after 99 years this land will be returned to Cambodia? You think they will kick the Chinese out? No way. It’s forever.” On April 25th, while escorting reporters to another site in Koh Kong undergoing deforestation, Wutty was fatally shot by military police charged with guarding the site from those who might interfere with the work of the lessees.

Speaking earlier of Wutty, Ou Virak, the president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said that Wutty, subject of many threats because of his advocacy, had told one of Virak’s colleagues that he would likely end up “in jail or he’ll be shot. He understands the risk and he’s aware of the risk, and still chose to continue to do the work” (of protecting Cambodia’s forests).

According to news reports, on April 25, Chut Wutty, 43, father of two, director of Cambodia’s environmental watchdog Natural Resource Protection Group in Phnom Penh, was fatally shot as he took two female journalists from The Cambodia Daily, Khmer Phorn Bopha and Ukrainian-born Canadian Olesia Plokhii, to see large-scale forest destruction and illegal rosewood smuggling near a Chinese-built hydroelectric dam in Koh Kong in Cambodia’s southwest. The two reporters were detained by the military for questioning, and later released.

According to news reports, a confrontation between Wutty and the Cambodian military police occurred when Wutty declined to surrender a memory card of photos of illegal logging, taken in the protected forest. Military spokesman Colonel Kheng Tito said Wutty was armed, and refused to stop as ordered by police officer In Ratana; that the two were cursing one another, and that In Ratana shot Wutty with his AK-47 rifle.

The government of Hun Sen initially announced it would investigate the shooting. On April 27, the Associated Press reported the military closed its investigation. The military’s spokesman said in the April 27th announcement that a pistol with nine bullets was found inside Wutty’s vehicle but Wutty never shot the pistol, and there never was any exchange of fire. Colonel Kheng Tito said when MP In Ratana learned that Wutty had died, Ratana then killed himself with his own weapon — case closed.

Cambodia’s Center for Cambodian Civic Education called the shooting death of Wutty cold-blooded murder. Global Witness’s statement calls Wutty one of the few remaining Cambodian activists willing to speak out against the rapid escalation of illegal logging and land grabbing which is impoverishing ordinary Cambodians and destroying the country’s rich natural heritage.

Standing Tall with the People

On the day I watched the video on “anarchic logging,” I also watched opposition leader Sochua speak in an interview, titled “Standing Tall with the People.” I have never met Sochua. Her statements, however, reminded me of events of June 2, 2010, referenced in my own article in AHRC of June 15, 2010.

On that day Premier Hun Sen’s Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling against legislator Mu Sochua, who had sued Premier Sen for defamation for 500 riels (about 12 cents). On that same day in a meeting of Cambodian officials, non-governmental groups (minus the London-based Global Witness) and international aid donors, it was agreed to award Cambodia US$1.1 billion in development aid.

This award occurred despite the release of a report by 15 non-governmental organizations, “Cambodia Silenced: The End Days of Democracy?” calling on the international donor community to “take serious note of the deterioration of freedom of expression in Cambodia.” The paper states: “For over a decade the international community has provided aid to Cambodia but most have remained largely quiet as human rights have been violated and democratic space eroded.”

I wrote about lessons drawn from these events: In the world of realpolitik, national interest — what actually brings more immediate benefit to serving a country’s foreign policy goal — trumps the elusive rights and freedoms of individuals; toothless international resolutions condemning injustices may be better than nothing, but they are not the “sticks and stones” that break bones and save such human rights leaders as Sochua and others.

As I watched “Standing Tall with the People,” I heard Sochua’s words on the fundamental problems between donor countries and Cambodian democrats, and I am reminded of Albert Einstein’s “The world is a dangerous place. Not because of the people who are evil; but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”

Sochua said in the video that she knew exactly with whom she was dealing when she took Premier Hun Sen to court. “This is not a court of justice but of injustice,” she said. She does not object to the international community’s ‘stay engaged’ policy, but to ‘stay complicit’ with a regime that does harms to the people is morally wrong. She went on to say, “It’s morally wrong to keep it in power.”

I have a profound respect for one who will not surrender principles and justice.


The AHRC is not responsible for the views shared in this article, which do not necessarily reflect its own.

About the Author:
Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years. He currently lives in the United States. He can be contacted at

Document ID :AHRC-ETC-013-2012
Countries : Cambodia
Date : 01-05-2012