An article by Dr. Gaffar Peang-Meth published by the Asian Human Rights Commission
We may never know what really happened when Cambodia’s eminent environmental activist Chut Wutty (46), father of two, head of the Natural Resource Protection Group, a Cambodian non-governmental organization fighting Cambodia’s deforestation, was shot and killed on April 26 at Veal Bei point in Mondul Seima district, in Koh Kong province.
On a trip by car from Pursat to Koh Kong with two journalists from The Cambodia Daily, Khmer Phorn Bopha and Canadian Olesia Plokhii, both 27, who were doing a story on grassroots efforts to prevent illegal logging, Wutty decided to stop at Veal Bei point, a heavily forested area notoriously known for illegal logging, near where a hydropower dam which is among four in Koh Kong and is being built at Stung Russey Chrum Krom by the China Huadian Corporation (CHC).
Wutty who devoted himself to protecting Cambodia’s forests, was determined to investigate “forest crime” by a Chinese-owned company named Timbergreen, licensed by Cambodia’s Economic Land Concession (ELC) to clear the Lower Russey Chrum reservoirs.
The ELC is a long-term lease (maximum of 99 years) that permits the beneficiary to clear land for industrial-agricultural activities. Cambodia has granted land concessions for various purposes since the 1990s; the 2001 Land Law formalized the legal framework for land concessions for economic purposes.
Playground for Khmer elite
My last article in this space examined the English narration of a video available on the Internet, “The Green Deal in Cambodia,” which asserted that Cambodia’s forests have disappeared at an alarming rate, and corruption and the lack of law enforcement ensured that profits from the logging benefited only a powerful elite . . . and the logging contributed nothing to Cambodia’s development.
An excerpt from an article by former Peace Corps volunteer Terry McCoy has been widely dispersed on Khmer websites this month. The article features a former Khmer pin up model, Tep Vanny, now an advocate of a new protest strategy and a new matriarchal order in the traditional Khmer patriarchal society. I ordered and read McCoy’s article, “The Playground,” an article I recommend.
“From the slums of Phnom Penh to the southern shores and eastern hills, Cambodia is transforming from a nation of farmers into a country of skyscrapers, golf courses, and air-conditioned villas at the behest of foreign investors – a playground for the elite,” McCoy writes.
McCoy’s description of what Cambodia has become – a nation in which more than 80 percent of the people live in rural areas and more than 70 percent depend on agriculture for their livelihood – and what the current regime and its proponents tout as progress and development, is on the mark.
A state within a state?
Wutty, who told friends his love for forests may either land him in jail or get him shot, expressed his sorrow at the reality of the ELC granting to private firms Khmer land for long-term: “You think after 99 years this land will be returned to Cambodia? You think (the government) will kick the Chinese out? No way. It’s forever.”
The Phnom Penh Post says armed forces commander-in-chief Sao Sokha and military police officials have affirmed that staff from the company licensed to clear the dam site in Koh Kong “attempted to stop Chut Wutty from taking photos of timber stockpiles.” The Cambodia Daily journalists report that before Wutty was fatally shot he was taking photographs of “stacks of yellow vine” (a plant used to treat stomach ailments) when a man in a black T-shirt and blue shorts told him “to stop taking photographs and leave the area.”
The Bangkok Post’s “The murder that shocked even Cambodia,” alleges Wutty’s “death followed an order from CHC – among China’s top five energy producers – to stop him from taking unwanted photographs.”
Timbergreen has security staff that includes Khmer police officers and members of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. The company is licensed to clear the dam site. How much power did the government give to the CHC or Timbergreen?
The European Union expressed concerns over “an increased use of force, particularly the use of firearms” by security forces. The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights claims the killing of Wutty “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,” and that “All of the perpetrators appear to have acted in the course of protecting business interests.”
The killing of Chut Wutty
The Cambodian government has given different and contradictory accounts of the shooting death of Wutty – accounts ridiculed by rights groups. According to the initial account, Wutty was armed, disobedient, rude, and was shot by military police officer In Rattana (a security guard of Timbergreen); but Wutty’s firearm was found in his car, with nine bullets and not recently fired; the distraught Rattana then turned his own AK-47 on himself, committing suicide. Two suspects, Timbergreen security guard Ran Boroth, 26, and military policeman So Sopheap, were hauled to court.
On May 5, government spokesman Tith Sothea told reporters a modified version of the earlier report. Sothea said the government’s version “is the clear and true result confirmed by witnesses at the scene”: A security guard and several military police confronted Wutty and tried to confiscate Wutty’s camera. In a heated argument between Rattana and Wutty, the former shot the latter. Ran Boroth, another security guard, “tried to grab the weapon from Rattana to prevent him from firing more shots, and the (AK-47) was discharged and killed him.”
Boroth was charged with involuntary homicide which carries a sentence of one to three years in prison and a fine between $500 and $1,500.
Rights groups caution against jumping to conclusions.
Indeed, the killer must be brought to justice. Yet, dealing with symptoms without curing the disease will solve nothing. Already, more than 8 million hectares of land have been granted to 368 companies; some 700,000 inhabitants nationwide have been thrown into land disputes since 2000; up to $6 billion in debt to foreigners is owed by Cambodia; how many more Om Radsadys, Chea Vicheas, Chut Wuttys will have to die before the systemic issues at the root of these personal tragedies are addressed?
One bad eye but not blind
Opposition leader Ms. Mu Sochua likes the Khmer proverb, “The worth of a person lies in his/her words, the worth of an elephant lies in its tusks.” She quotes it often.
Hun Sen’s words have made the Prime Minister a laughingstock among regime opponents. In a video examined in my last article, he threatened companies that don’t obey the order of the Ministry of Agriculture (to cease destructive logging): “Just you try… If you aren’t going to obey, just you try. If I don’t take away your concession and shut down your factory, I will cut off my head and throw it away,” he announced dramatically.
We see what happened to Wutty.
Hun Sen’s words may contradict his actions, as Ms. Sochua sees. But Hun Sen isn’t as powerful as people and he, himself, think. Businesses have their interests to protect; state security and military forces are interested in enriching themselves and their families; officials and cadres choose to reconcile and enlarge their zone of tolerance toward what they don’t like for the time being.
Hun Sen is not blind to what go on around him. He knows many of his elites, officers, cadres, and clans stay with him so long as they can extract the nation’s wealth for their own benefit; he knows his ruling Cambodian People’s Party is divided, and it’s a matter of time before existing internal divisions will surface. He knows increasing numbers of Cambodians are disgusted with his rule.
Suspending economic land concessions
The Associated Press dubbed Hun Sen’s May 7 directive “to temporarily suspend new land concessions” to private companies as reflecting his “usual political astuteness” to “ease political pressure” that threatens his regime. His government says the directive would confiscate concessions that involve land-grabbing from villagers and illegal logging.
Special United Nations envoy on human rights, Surya Subedi, is in Phnom Penh on a weeklong mission to study land concessions and their “impact on the human rights of local communities.” The Chinese-built hydropower project at Stung Russey Chrum Krom is condemned worldwide. The April 26 shooting death of Wutty has drawn worldwide criticism. There are growing protests by villagers and warnings that Cambodia’s wilderness will soon vanish. Cambodia’s commune elections are a couple of weeks away. Hun Sen initiates his political ramvong – a popular slow circle dance with participants continuously moving around and around in a circle using hand movement and simple footwork.
Ms. Sochua asked about the directive, “The PM is feeling the heat or (is it) just a pre-election ploy to fool the public so he and his party can continue selling … the nation for another term?”
Many welcome the directive. But they question how the new and existing ELCs would be implemented or reviewed. Rights groups call for “a permanent ban.”
The May 9 Phnom Penh Post’s “Government silent on ELCs” confirmed the widely held view that no implementing directives have been issued regarding the dramatically announced changes in policy regarding ELCs. The Governor of Rattanakiri, where 18 companies hold some 80,000 hectares of land through ELCs, and the Governor of Kompong Thom, where 26 companies hold about 50,000 hectares of land granted through ELCs, said they are awaiting instructions to implement.
Cambodians and the international community
Cambodians’ rationale for expecting the signatories of the Paris Peace Accord to fulfill the enduring responsibilities of the October 23, 1991 Final Act “to commit themselves to promote and encourage respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms in Cambodia as embodied in the relevant international instruments to which they are party,” is not without foundation. As the signatories declared, “the parties hereby commit … to a continuing role in Cambodia.”
We live in a world of realpolitik. A nation’s foreign policy goals are dictated by what its leaders define as its national interests. Lord Buddha teaches us, “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may.” He tells us: “Work out your own salvation. Do not depend on others.”
I have suggested that Cambodian democrats rely on themselves in their struggle against oppression. They must think smart and act smart, develop and rely on creative and critical thinking, render themselves relevant and credible.
Lately, I suggested an interrelated three-pronged approach for Cambodia’s better future: Heighten Cambodians’ Buddhist consciousness and practice of their Lord’s teachings; change old thoughts and old habits that are impediments to progress; unleash nonviolent action, which works, against oppressors as many Khmers in the country already are doing.
Oppression, a powerful weapon of the oppressor, is also a weapon that brings down the autocrats who practice it.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.