“How is your family?” Wutty Chut asked over the phone in his thick Khmer accent. “Are they glad you are back home safe?”
“Yes,” I answered. I had returned from three weeks in Cambodia researching an article on deforestation. “How are you?”
“I am good, but I think nothing here has changed,” said Chut. “The forests are still being cut down.”
Chut, director of the Cambodian watchdog agency the Natural Resources Protection Group (NRPG), was shot and killed in the province of Koh Kong on April 26, 2012. He was an outspoken environmental activist who worked with many local communities to combat illegal logging.
With varying accounts from police officials, the circumstances surrounding Chut’s death remain unclear.
A military police officer, Rattana In, also died in the incident. The military has offered a number of explanations for In’s death: a bullet may have ricocheted off Chut’s car or In may have killed himself after shooting Chut. According to Pilorge Naly, director of the local human rights group, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO), the claims of suicide are impossible since the doctor at hospital in Koh Kong removed two fatal bullets from his body.
A group of local NGOs has joined with the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to investigate the incident. The Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also announced a committee of five government officials to investigate.
“We are disputing the composition of the committee as it includes a high profile military policeman and most members are policy makers not police officers,” said Naly in an e-mail.
Chut was accompanying two journalists from a local newspaper, The Cambodia Daily, when he was killed after being confronted by military police and a military official. According to the Phnom Penh Post, the Timbergreen company sent the police to pursue Chut since he was trying to expose their illegal logging.
Chut had worked tirelessly to protect the forests of Cambodia, rising early in the morning and working late into the night, despite the fact that the loud music from the bar below his office would cause the floor to shake. He dreamed of one day starting an ecotourism operation on a plot of land he owned up in the Cardamom Mountains.
Chut often traveled across Cambodia working on a grassroots level. He was an important part of the Prey Lang Network (PLN), a group of community volunteers that works to protect the Prey Lang forest in northeastern Cambodia. Because of his active involvement Chut had received previous threats and had been attacked twice.
“One time the men with arms surrounded me and tried to break my neck,” Chut said. “The villagers came around me and helped me escape alive.”
In November 2011 the Cambodian government also threatened to shut down Chut’s NGO, the Natural Resources Protection Group.
That Chut was trained in the military was evident in the organization and execution of his plans, especially when synchronizing large-scale protests with the PLN.
Chut not only worked on the ground, teaching villagers to use GPS and organizing patrols in the forest for illegal loggers, but he also demanded accountability from the government and NGOs.
“[Cambodia’s] constitution is very strong,” said Chut. “I have a right to fight back. Some people see the Natural Resources Protection Group and they are scared. They know I’m fighting back.”
The contentment that Chut felt in the forest was obvious, as were the reasons he would risk so much to protect it.
“See that tree?” he said. “I like that tree, it gives good shade. Now there are not many left.”
Chut, who was 40, leaves behind a wife and two children. Chut’s son was planning to attend university to study environmental law.
“They worry when I am out in the forest,” Chut once told me. “They always call to make sure I am okay.”