Raising their voices in unison, friends, relatives and former colleagues of slain environmental activist Chut Wutty chanted his name as they approached the place along the road where his life ended two years ago to the day.
On April 26, 2012, Wutty, the director of the National Resource Protection Group and tireless advocate for Cambodia’s forests, was gunned down in bizarre circumstances during an investigation into illegal logging in Koh Kong province’s Mondul Seima district.
The shooting, by a military police officer, was the most high-profile killing of an activist since unionist Chea Vichea was shot dead outside a newsstand in Phnom Penh in 2004, and it sent shockwaves throughout the country’s activist community.
Two years later, during the first ceremony at the site to mark the anniversary of Wutty’s death, emotions were still running high.
“He told us that losing our forest is like losing our life force,” said 58-year-old Tun Lam, an activist from Stung Treng province who met Wutty in 2008. “Even though we were afraid after he was killed, we can’t stop our activities, or it will all be for nothing.”
The event on Saturday, which occurred alongside a stretch of road in Mondul Seima district called Veal Bei point, attracted about 100 people who travelled in vans and the same truck that Wutty was driving when he was shot. The group gathered around an effigy of the activist fashioned out of tree branches, as the Venerable Luon Savath, an activist monk, led a Buddhist ceremony to commemorate Wutty’s spirit.
His son Chheuy Oddom Rasmey, 21, remembered the last time he heard his father’s voice, in a phone conversation about an hour before he was killed.
“He wanted me to become a lawyer, but I don’t want this job, because the court system in Cambodia is neither independent nor just,” he said, adding that he was committed to ending illegal logging on a grassroots level.
Three monitors sporting the powder blue vests of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) placed a wreath alongside Wutty’s shrine, paid for by staff members of the OHCHR Cambodia office.
The crime scene is typically guarded by at least two men, according to Neang Boratino, provincial coordinator for Adhoc, which worked closely with Wutty.
“They made an exception for this day, because they know how large we are in number,” he said.
Provincial Forestry Administration director Oum Makary said yesterday, however, that the site was near a public road, and access was never blocked.
“No one is allowed to log that area, because [environmental NGO] Wildlife Alliance and military police officers patrol the area on foot and with a helicopter,” Makary said.
Rights monitors say the circumstances leading to Wutty’s death haven’t been properly investigated. What’s known is a standoff turned ugly, ending with Wutty and a military police officer both dead.
Rattana had allegedly tried to confiscate the memory card of a camera Wutty, who was in the company of two journalists, had been using to document stockpiles of yellow vine.
As the official narrative goes, after arguing, Rattana shot and killed Wutty before being shot dead by Ran Borath, a security guard for a logging firm. The two journalists were unharmed in the incident.
When the case finally came to trial, the provincial court focused on the unintentional murder of Rattana, the man supposedly responsible for Wutty’s death. Key witnesses were never called to testify, and Borath, the security guard who was accused of the “accidental killing” of Rattana, only served six months of his two-year sentence.
“Two years on, Chut Wutty’s family and friends are still demanding justice for Cambodia’s premier defender of the forest. But those pleas are falling on deaf ears in the government,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said on Sunday.
In a press release issued on Saturday, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights characterised the official version of what happened as “ludicrous”.
But violence and intimidation of environmental activists will continue, along with the depletion of Cambodian forests, if Wutty’s work is abandoned, said Chhim Savuth, the current executive director of the National Resource Protection Group.
Sitting in a small clearing during the ceremony as a means of escaping the crowd, Savuth said logging had only accelerated since July’s national elections.
“The only way for this to change is if the government stops issuing licences to export timber abroad and reinforces the forest law,” Savuth said, adding that as each year passed, the forest’s supply of rosewood was coming dangerously close to the brink of extinction.
As the burning incense began to wane and the light dimmed, the crowd slowly returned to nearby vans, ending an event that was sombre but far from hopeless.
Wutty’s effigy was left leaning along a shrine constructed in his honour, surrounded by sticks of incense.
“In Cambodia, justice is like salt in the water or a pin at the bottom of the ocean that is nearly impossible to find,” said monk Luon Sovath to the kneeling participants. “But if you kill one Chut Wutty - 10,000 more Chut Wutty’s will stand up and continue his work.”