On 26 April, Cambodian military police shot the environmental campaigner Chut Wutty as he sat at the wheel of his blood-red Land Cruiser. Chut, 46, had just led two journalists through an illegal logging operation in Koh Kong province. As the journalists fled into the bush for safety, they heard two more gunshots behind them.
They emerged to find Chut slumped lifeless in the driver’s seat and military police officer In Rattana lying dead in front of the vehicle. Police initially claimed that the dead officer killed Chut during a heated confrontation, then turned his rifle around and shot himself – twice – in remorse. After a three-day investigation in May, a government panel decreed that a second officer accidentally shot In while trying to disarm him. The case is officially closed.
The murder of Chut Wutty is just one in a string of violent encounters in Cambodia this year between armed authorities and civilians working to protect access to the rapidly diminishing supply of arable land and forest not sealed off by economic concession.
Twenty-two people have been injured in eight separate incidents since November, according to the rights group Licadho. In January, soldiers hired as private security by a developer in Kratie province opened fire on villagers protesting forced evictions. On 17 May, three weeks after Chut’s death, soldiers shot and killed a 14-year-old girl as she hid behind a woodpile during the forced eviction of a village that falls within a new economic land concession.
In its 20 years as a nominal democracy, Cambodia has been no stranger to politically-motivated violence. What’s different now, longtime observers say, is that the guns are trained not on high-profile political targets but on civilians whose only crime has been to resist the increasing encroachment of private economic interests on the land, forests and other natural resources they rely on to survive.
The attacks have cast a grim pall over the burgeoning grassroots networks that have cropped up in recent years to protect local communities.
“I [am] really worried about my security but . . . it’s our life, our rice paddy, our forests, our land,” said Seng Sokheng, an activist with the Community Peacebuilding Network in Oddar Meanchey province. “If we do not stand up for ourselves and each other, no one else will.”
The lawless rush for resources
Home to a largely rural population of 14.7 million people, Cambodia boasts an enviable supply of tropical forests, gem-rich hills and productive farmland. As an increasing number of domestic and foreign investors have taken note of those natural resources in recent years, the government has doled out economic concessions at an astonishing rate. Private firms now control nearly one-quarter of Cambodia’s surface area, according to a joint report released in March by Licadho and The Cambodia Daily newspaper. No part of the country appears off-limits – the Ministry of Environment has so far signed over 10% of the national conservation areas under its control to private plantations, the joint investigation found.
In defiance of Cambodia’s own laws, many of these concessions have been granted in secretive terms with little or no public consultation or environmental assessments. The government has handed over tracts of pristine forest, wildlife sanctuaries and lands containing the homes and farmlands of thousands. More than 400,000 Cambodians in 12 provinces have been affected by land disputes in the last decade, Licadho reports.
In response to the rising public outcry, prime minister Hun Sen announced in May a freeze on new land concessions and a review of existing ones. The prime minister has since signed off on an additional 65,000 hectares of new concessions, while arguing that the deals are legal under the terms of the ban. Evidence of a review of existing concessions is yet to materialise.
The impression for many ordinary Cambodians is that their livelihoods, their communities, the very land beneath their feet could be snatched away at any time.
“Our communities are not legally recognised,” said Mom Sakhin, a campaigner in Kratie province. “When we ask for support from the authorities, they ignore us.”
In addition to the violent crackdowns on protests and attacks on individuals such as Chut Wutty, campaigners report increased harassment and disruption to their activities. On 18 June, authorities in Preah Vihear province blocked a planned meeting of the Prey Lang Community Network, a grassroots group of locals campaigning for the preservation of the Prey Lang evergreen forest.
Communities fight back
Cambodia is a microcosm of a violent struggle playing out across the globe for control of a shrinking – and therefore increasingly valuable – pool of natural resources. More than 700 people have been killed in the last decade while working on behalf of the environment or communities affected by environmental projects, according to a recent report from the watchdog group Global Witness. The rate of killings doubled between 2009 and 2011.
The apparent willingness of authorities to defend concessions by force – including those of dubious legality – is an alarming development for those working with affected communities.
“We’re getting into a real crisis,” said Markus Hardtke, a longtime environmental campaigner in Cambodia, at a panel honouring Chut Wutty at London’s Frontline Club earlier this month. “We have reached a stage where it’s borderline anarchy in the provinces.”
While organisers report that the recent high-profile attacks have intimidated some potential recruits, many more say they are unbowed – even hopeful. The release of 13 women imprisoned for protesting a forced eviction in Phnom Penh led to a spontaneous party in the streets of the capital last month. Other campaigners say the stakes are simply too high to quit now.
“If the authorities charge me for something bad or accuse me of being political opposition, if they keep me in a provincial office or put me in prison, I do not care,” said Pok Hong, a mother of five and activist in the Prey Lang Network. “I do not care about death.”
Corinne Purtill is a journalist based in London.
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