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A decade after activist’s death, rights groups in Cambodia press for answers

Cambodian environmentalists called for authorities to reinvestigate the 2012 murder of a forestry activist, who was slain while campaigning against illegal logging, a problem that has gotten worse in the decade since his killing. 

Chut Wutty was shot to death on April 26, 2012 while investigating illegal logging in southern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.

He had been active in organizing communities to protect Cambodian forests against developers and campaigned against the government’s granting of land concessions in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

A letter by the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, signed by 28 separate civic society organizations, called on Justice, Interior and Defense Ministry officials and Koh Kong provincial authorities to “undertake a credible and thorough investigation to hold all those responsible for his murder to account.”

An official investigation into Chut Wutty’s death was closed in October 2013 when a court in Koh Kong province abruptly ended its proceedings. 

Student league President Keut Saray said he has little expectation that the authorities will bring any suspects in Chut Wutty’s murder to trial.

“It is sad that we don’t hope to get justice, but as a nation for a person who sacrificed his life, the ministry shouldn’t ignore it,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“We will follow up with the investigation. Not for just a few weeks; we will follow up as long as we live. Today is more about having a chance to remember the hero who protected our forests. We need to lead and sacrifice to protect the forest,” he said.

In another event that commemorated Chut Wutty, hosted by the Khmer Thavrak youth group, 10 young people adorned in white ribbons decorated their motorbikes with leaves. They attempted to ride to the Ministry of Environment and Justice, but authorities stopped them and confiscated their bikes.

Chut Wutty’s son Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey, who is in Lowell, Massachusetts, for a ceremony to commemorate his father scheduled for May 1, told RFA that the authorities are trying to stop activists from commemorating Chut Wutty anniversary, including by showing a documentary about him.

“We are implementing undemocratic laws. People are not allowed to walk in Phnom Penh anymore,” he said.

Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey noted that Hun Sen once claimed he would behead himself if he failed to stop illegal logging. But preventing activists from holding public commemorations for the forestry activist raises questions about the prime minister’s commitment to protecting Cambodia’s forests, Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey said.

“Why can’t we commemorate the hero who has already been murdered?” he asked. “We will continue to try to show the world to know that there has been no justice, even 10 years since his murder.”

Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey urged the government to allow the forestry activists to patrol the country’s protected forests, an activity that is currently prohibited. Illegal logging will continue until there is a change in policy, and his father’s case will linger until there is a new government to investigate.

“Justice can’t be rendered. I don’t have confidence in the court, which is not independent,” he said.

Neither Phay Siphan, a spokesman for Hun Sen’s government, and Chhin Malin, a spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, could be reached for comment on April 26. Phay Siphan recently told RFA that the court already closed Chut Wutty’s case, but it might reopen the investigation if the family and NGOs submit more evidence.

Illegal logging in protected areas of Cambodia is a major source of social instability and helps drive rapid deforestation, which is a problem across the entire Southeast Asian region.

Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar and Thailand declined to sign a global pact at the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November to end and reverse forest loss by 2030, even while the region — home to around 15% of the world’s tropical forests — is among its major deforestation hotspots.

Cambodia has lost 26% of its tree cover, equivalent to about 5.7 million acres, since 2000 according to satellite imagery.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.