Story

Cambodia: Undercover in Snuol

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Sinary Sany, a Khmer-land activist turned freelance reporter, interviews Coy Saveuth, a local journalist. Image by Saul Elbein. Cambodia, 2014.

Before we headed out into the field, my fixer, Sinary Sany, had a come-to-Jesus meeting with me about mission security. Sinary was a firecracker of a woman, a Khmer-land activist turned freelance reporter at the Cambodia Daily. When I'd asked her if she had had any threats while covering land issues, she shrugged and said, “Not so much. Only beaten twice,” and then when I, taken aback, asked if she was scared to work on this story, she shook her head and said, “No, I am not scared, because the powerful people have taken so much from us that I do not care now if they kill us, because we are not going to be quiet.”

So that was Sinary. But she also said her mother was terrified for her, knowing she was a journalist. So for her mother's sake, here were the rules: We'd travel together posing as tourists—as one of Phnom Penh's many white/Khmer couples out on a holiday in the countryside. We wouldn't tell the police anywhere we were going that we were there—we'd only call them after the fact. And we wouldn't tell anyone we were journalists.

In the comfort of Phnom Penh, eating fish amok and drinking Angkor Beer at a restaurant on the riverfront, this had sounded like a very sage plan. So did the admonitions from Sinary's boss at the Cambodia Daily, not to go running off into the back country looking for illegal logging operations. “As long as you don't do that,” he had said, sipping his beer, “you should be fine.”

We got similar advice from most of the journalists we talked to.

And so we headed off into the provinces, convinced we were covered. What we didn't understand was something which, I believe, the journalists I wrote about understand intuitively: Just how hard it is to protect yourself fully—and that someone is always watching.

A few notes on illegal logging in Cambodia and why we were out there. As I've outlined in greater depth in my piece for VICE News, in Cambodia, it is widely understood that the largest gangs cutting down trees and transporting illegal logs are the military and police. We were headed to the town of Snuol, where local policemen and soldiers had just shot journalist Taing Try while he was out trying to find a shipment of illegal logs. A few hours before he was killed, Try and other journalists he was with had gotten a call from Chhon Khoeun, local chief of police, telling them that the logs they were looking for were his, and that they had better get home.

So the journalists had turned around. On the way back they had stopped to discuss and were visited by other journalists—men in the pay of, or under the thumb of, Khoeun. Those journalists had called Khoeun, reporting the names of the men out looking for the logs. A few hours later Try was dead and policemen from the neighboring district arrested for his murder.

I knew all this going out there. It didn't bother me, because we'd be undercover. So it didn't faze me when Sinary and I told our contact in Snuol, one of Try's friends named Sa Piseth, that I'd like to see the spot where Try was killed, and he told us that he couldn't find any motorbike drivers willing to take us out there: “Everyone is too scared.” The next morning he rang back, telling us that he had found some people who could take us. We were to meet him at a coffee shop by the hotel.

So we sat at the coffee shop, eating beef noodle soup and drinking strong coffee with condensed milk, when Piseth walked up. With him were four men. Two of them, rangy, wearing faded button-down shirts, introduced themselves as Coy Saveuth and Seim Sitha, local journalists. They explained something to Sinary—I saw her eyes get big. She turned to me.

“Those were the journalists who were working for the police chief,” she said. “The ones who met them on the way home.”

“So does that mean that Khoeun knows we're here?”

She nodded. “I think, yes.”

And then we were walking to the motorbikes; we were getting on them; we were pulling out. My driver and I whipped down the road and I thought, dully, about Try lying dead on the ground, about back roads with piles of logs. I thought about calling a halt to the whole thing, getting Sinary and getting out of Snuol. And I knew, too, that I wasn't going to do that—that I was in, and it was going to be very difficult to extricate myself.

So we headed down the red dirt logging roads to the giant mud puddle where Taing Try had been killed a week before. And then we plunged deeper down the road, down past a high two-story house with a red tile roof that, the journalists said, belonged to Khoeun. "He lives there during logging season,” Sinary explained. We passed oxcarts of the sort used to move illegal lumber, coming back empty from the main road. Finally we came to a large clearing. In the center was a van, the back door open, the center stuffed full of lumber. A family stared at us from a house nearby.

We got off the motorbikes. Sinary talked to the journalists. “They say it's all illegal.”

So here we were, in a place we had been warned against being, a place where a man had been killed for doing what we were doing, with a couple of journalists who were reporting to the chief of police. This was exactly what we hadn't wanted to happen, and yet here we were.

And so we headed out, and on our way out we stopped by a fence post to discuss what to do next. Coy Saveuth's phone rang. He started talking and I felt who it was before I was told—Chhon Khoeun, the chief of police. Saveuth listened, then spat something back into the phone. Sinary turned to me, “Khoeun wants to know where they are and what they're doing.” The conversation went back and forth and then Saveuth shook his head and put his phone away. Khoeun had hung up on him.

I wanted to get out right then, but I also didn't want to seem scared. And so we rolled down the road a ways; we stopped at a little shop run by one of Saveuth's friends, a former journalist. While we were standing there a brown sedan rolled up with one of Khoeun's lieutenants inside. Saveuth explained, later, that this man had once held a gun to his head. He and Piseth had some words, which no one translated for me, and then he drove away. Piseth stood off to the side, kicking at the ground, looking increasingly anxious. Finally, he suggested we head back—now.

Driving back down that dirt road, white knuckled on the back of a motorbike, I looked back to see the white van stacked with illegal lumber, coming down the road toward us. My heart leapt into my throat and for one mad second I was sure they were going to run us off the road. But they passed us and turned at the paved road—headed for Vietnam.

I do not, now, know what to make of this fear. I do not believe that we were in danger. At least, I don't believe that I was personally—I can't be sure about Sinary. But I do know that I was terrified—that suddenly it was clear to me that we had been idiots, that of course our entry into town had been seen, that we were there at the sufferance of men with guns and power. Putting whatever the actual danger was aside, Sinary and I felt the fear for a few hours and it was almost overwhelming. Riding back into town, two days after getting there, it was clear to both of us that it was time to go.

Leaving town on a bus, I imagined life in Snuol as crisscrossed with invisible lines; step over too many times and you could end up dead. This was the situation under which Try, Saveuth, Piseth, lived all the time—always running the risk they were betting wrong and would end up dead. Their bravery in continuing to do the work humbles me to this day.