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Land activists ‘under threat’

A mourner attends a memorial service for slain forest activist Chut Wutty in Prey Veng province in April 2013
A mourner attends a memorial service for slain forest activist Chut Wutty in Prey Veng province in April 2013. Heng Chivoan

Land activists ‘under threat’

Cambodian land advocates face some of the most threatening and deadly working conditions in the world, according to a new report by UK-based environmental watchdog Global Witness.

Since 2002, 908 reported killings linked to land activism have occurred across 35 countries – with 13 taking place in Cambodia – and that number has been climbing in the last four years, the report, Deadly Environment, reveals.

Land disputes, shrinking natural resources and a culture of impunity are tied to the reported intimidation and killings of land activists recorded in the Kingdom, said Alice Harrison, a communications adviser for Global Witness.

“Of the reported killings that our research uncovered, the highest concentration in Southeast Asia was in the Philippines, with 67. But with 13 killings, Cambodia’s death toll is certainly significant, behind Thailand with 16,” Harrison said, adding that Cambodia ranked ninth of 35 countries.

Violence stemming from land disputes in Cambodia is highlighted in the report with the inclusion of 14-year-old Heng Chantha’s death in Kratie province in 2012. The girl was shot by security forces during an eviction mere weeks after the slaying of prominent anti-logging activist Chut Wutty.

But the cycle of violence will continue unabated as long as senior politicians keep being linked to logging cartels, warned Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

“Corrupt land dealings can be traced back to our politicians and our military officials
. . . This will keep happening until a real commitment is made to end this cycle of impunity by our leaders,” Kol said.

The spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management, Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, and military police spokesman Kheng Tito could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak downplayed the report’s findings and allegations.

“I think that environmentalists and land defenders are not under threat in Cambodia, and the report’s link to land grabbing and land disputes [and] companies [being related] to the killing and intimidation of environmentalists is not true,” Sopheak said.

However, it was the fatal shooting of Wutty – one of the most high-profile killings of an activist in Cambodia since unionist Chea Vichea was slain in 2004 – that inspired Global Witness to investigate the realities land activists face on the ground in Cambodia.

Chut Wutty, one of Cambodia’s most outspoken activists against illegal logging, was shot dead on April 26, 2012, after military police stopped his vehicle in Koh Kong province. While the details leading up to Wutty’s death remain unclear, it is known that he was shot by a military police officer while investigating a company’s involvement in illegal logging.

Wutty’s son, Chheuy Oddom Rasmey, said he is not scared of the threats and harassment and will continue his father’s efforts “to protect the environment and natural resources of Cambodia for the future”.

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