Authorities in Cambodia are accused of corruption as they fail to investigate the killing of dissidents. But forest activists say they won't be deterred from protesting.
Chut Wutty was one of Cambodia's leading environmental activists, known for aggressive campaigns against illegal logging and land evictions, practices that have become commonplace in Cambodia.
His activism won him many admirers and more than a few enemies. He was no stranger to the threats of guards and policeman who didn't like his investigations.
Though he was well-connected and knew how to navigate danger, on April 26, his luck ran out.
After showing two journalists a logging camp, the three were stopped by military police. The full details of what happened next have not emerged, but at the end of an argument both Chut Wutty and a military policeman had been shot and killed.
The news shocked Cambodians, but more than a few were not surprised. Wutty's killing is part of an emerging pattern, which has been left unprosecuted, of violence against dissidents.
On May 16, military police shot and killed a 14-year-old girl as they were attempting to remove villagers who were protesting eviction from their land to make room for a rubber plantation. Officials have said they acted in self-defense and no inquiry has been launched.
In February, a provincial town governor shot into a crowd of protesting garment workers, hitting and wounding three women. He was eventually removed from his post, but was not charged.
Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist who had worked with Chut Wutty, shook his head as he described the death of his friend and the subsequent government investigation, which lasted only three days and whose quality was, by many accounts, questionable at best.
First the government said Chut Wutty had shot at the military police, so they shot back in self-defense. Then the story changed, and officials said the officer who shot Wutty turned the gun on himself in remorse.
"Everyone was laughing about that one," Hardtke said.
In the end, he said, the government just wanted the story to go away, as it was generating unwelcome coverage in a nation of increasing protest, and even drawing international attention.
"Now you have a major land-grab and timber-grab going on, organized and initiated at the highest levels of government," he said. "This is a relatively new phenomenon but it's really scary, it's really going very fast."
The land grabs and illegal logging are often associated with large economic land concessions granted by the government to local businesspeople or foreign investors. They might be for the construction of rubber plantations, hydroelectric dams or Chinese-backed gambling resorts.
As Cambodia emerges from decades of conflict and civil war, its government is eager to spur economic growth and attract investment. Critics say this is being done on the backs of the poor, who have few rights and little recourse in a country of lax regulations and a weak justice system.
"For over ten years, local communities have been robbed of their natural resources. But as resources dwindle, their survival is at stake," said Chut Wutty before his death in a video about his campaign to save the region's only remaining lowland evergreen forest.
Some worry that the high-profile shooting of the activist could serve as a warning to others not to press their concerns too vigorously.
"If the government closes the case, I think the people and community members will be afraid," said an investigator for the rights group Adhoc, Ny Chariya, who has studied the incident closely.
Yet he points out that several weeks after the shooting, more than 400 activists descended on the forest Chut Wutty was trying to save to show authorities they would not be intimidated.
"They are scared, but they must do it," he said. "They have to protect their natural resources."
Srey Puen is one of the activists determined not to be frightened into inaction.
He and about 30 other environmentalists came to Phnom Penh recently to discuss their strategy for continuing the fight against illegal logging, illegal fishing and the kind of land-grabbing that displaces rural communities
"One person has died, but one hundred more will come in his place," he said.
The government would not talk on the record for this article, but pointed to a freeze on all new economic land concessions and a review of existing ones, announced in the wake of Chut Wutty's death.
If violations are found—such as illegal logging—the concessions would be revoked, the government said. However, many are skeptical, especially since the number of land concessions reached a new high last year and elections are coming up in June.
So far the government has not provided details of how the freeze would be enforced.
Author: Kyle James, Phnom Penh
Editor: Nathan Witkop