by Mu Sochua
Before becoming a forest ranger, Theun Soknay was a student at a boarding school in Mondulkiri province. He later worked as a tour guide at the Bunong Place, and obtained a bachelor’s degree, before working at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) for four years, where he developed the Jahoo Gibbon Camp. In 2017, his passion for preserving the environment led him to pass the national exam to become an official ranger with the Ministry of Environment.
From the Bunong indigenous community, he was determined to protect his ancestors’ forest. But Soknay was gunned down on January 30 as he was on patrol, along with Thol Khna, a staff member of Wildlife Conservation Society Cambodia, and Sok Vathana, a military police officer.
The authorities are now claiming an alleged confrontation as the cause of the murders and have arrested six suspects, charging them with premeditated murder. This sounds eerily familiar to the alleged circumstances surrounding well-known environmental activist Chut Wutty’s death back in 2012, and to that of many other forest rangers killed since without any independent investigations having been undertaken. Unfortunately, those arrested are not always the real killers, and even less often those who are truly responsible for the dangerous conditions in which Soknay and his colleagues find themselves in.
The real cause of these tragedies lies in the illegal logging industry in Cambodia that supplies China’s insatiable demand for rosewood timber to be turned into luxury furniture. This industry was valued at a whopping $2 billion by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency in 2014, with Cambodia occupying the fifth place in the list of biggest contributors.
Despite Prime Minister Hun Sen’s promise to give his life to stop illegal logging, a government ban on timber exports to Vietnam in January and the creation of a high-level task force headed by National Military Police Commander Sao Sokha in early 2017, illegal logging continues in Cambodia’s national parks, in community protected areas, in areas designated as land concessions, and in wildlife sanctuaries.
This is all happening under the full control of business tycoons like Try Pheap and Kith Meng, who have close links with the ruling party. Millions of dollars are paid as bribes to provincial and district governors and officials in the armed and police forces to protect the industry. Impunity reigns, while ministry officials point fingers at one another. Meanwhile, proud foot soldiers, border patrol agents, and hardworking forest rangers on patrol have become easy targets for high-ranking officials working for the big companies.
Saving what remains of Cambodia’s forests will be even harder now that the ruling party has effectively hijacked the country and cracked down on free speech, dissolving the main opposition party, labelling human rights workers and environmental activists as part of a “colour revolution”, and shutting down independent media.
But that doesn’t mean we should give up the fight. We must remind those responsible – such as the minister of environment – that this is not about party politics. Regardless of who wins the elections or who is in charge, protection of our environment and of our natural resources must be a priority.
The murder of those who seek to protect our forests must be investigated independently, so that no doubt may arise over the real circumstances of their deaths. The minister of environment should be the first to lead this fight, to show that the murder of Soknai – one of his own staff – will not go unpunished.
Meanwhile, we all have a part to play in honouring these heroes who believed in saving Cambodia’s forests and paid for it with their lives. Forgetting them would mean giving up the fight.
Mu Sochua is a former member of parliament and deputy president of the CNRP.