Cambodia’s environmental activists: Internationally awarded, but murdered at home
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Cambodia’s environmental activists: Internationally awarded, but murdered at home

By Alexandra Demetrianova

THE Cambodian public and netizens cheered last week, when activist and human rights lawyer Ouch Leng was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his undercover investigations into the illegal logging trade.

Leng has done some admirable advocacy work with local communities, who have been affected by deforestation and land grabbing linked to illegal logging. He tried to expose the corruption behind Economic Land Concessions (ELCs) and founded the Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, an organization which leads the civil society fight against the country’s illegal logging and timber trade.

“Ouch went undercover to gather evidence of illegal logging activities, posing as a laborer, timber dealer, driver, tourist and even as a cook. He documented the illegal operations of Cambodia’s biggest timber magnate (Try Pheap), revealing how ELCs were used as a cover for illegal logging and exposing criminal collusion between timber companies and government officials at all levels of power,” said the Goldman Environmental Prize committee.

Leng was one of six awardees who were chosen by the seven-member jury. The recipients were awarded a prize of US$175,000 each. Days after receiving the prestigious award, Leng announced that he would use the money to support environmental activists in his homeland and their fight to save Cambodia’s forests.

“I will use the cash prize for the protection of remaining forests, including the launching of mechanisms against the timber trade, such as gathering people for government advocacy with the aim to shut down all kinds of sawmill operations and timber-processing factories nationwide. This is what we need to do as a first step.”

Ouch-Leng

Cambodian environmentalist Ouch Leng speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. Pic: AP.

The ‘war’ against illegal logging

To Cambodians and their thriving civil society, this was an award not only for Leng and the work of Cambodia Human Rights Task Force, but to the countless other environmental activists putting their lives on the frontline in the “war” against deforestation and illegal logging, as well as the corrupt practices surrounding ELCs.

Many others like Leng have not lived to be awarded or recognized for their work. As civil society battles against this multi-billion-dollar trade, many are putting their personal safety at risk, and in some cases, have lost their lives for the cause – environmental activist Chut Wutty is one of them.

Wutty’s name rose to prominence in April 2012, when he was murdered while on his regular patrol in the field to document and provide evidence against illegal loggers. He was shot dead by government security forces and no one has yet been held accountable for his murder.

The investigation suggested that the officer who killed Wutty was himself accidentally shot dead at the scene by another officer. The court dismissed case against the surviving officer and later dropped Wutty’s murder case. The investigation was full of inconsistencies and questionable versions of what really happened.

Leng took the opportunity of his international award to criticize the Cambodian government for being complicit in atrocities and threats against environmental activists, saying in an interview with local media:

“The government is never happy with forest rangers, patrolers, natural-resource preservers and human rights activists. These people always experience death threats.”

In fact, he suggested that he himself might be in danger for his activities: “I am afraid of experiencing Chut Wutty’s fate, but if I do not do it, others will not.” 

In remembrance of Chut Wutty

It’s no coincidence that Leng mentioned Wutty last week, as the documentary “I Am Chut Wutty”, which was supposed to be screened in Phnom Penh’s cultural center Meta House on the anniversary of Wutty’s death (April 26th), was banned by Cambodian authorities.

The owner of Meta House received a letter from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts last week stating that the screening would be against the law, as no prior permission had been received. And therefore the public screening was cancelled.

What followed after the cancellation convinced many that the intervention was politically motivated and that the government – led by the Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) – has no desire to allow critical debate or film screenings about slain environmental activists: At first, the Department of Cinema and Cultural Diffusion’s director Sin Chan Saya claimed lack of prior permission as the reason behind the ban. However, Meta House claims it has screened the documentary before in December 2014 and no one objected.

Chan Saya then cited a legal requirement for all films screened in public to be reviewed by the government first, which had been in place for years. Meta House again objected, saying that in its agreement with the authorities, the cultural center had only vowed to put screened films to government review when asked to do so by the authorities. According to the Department of Cinema and Cultural Diffusion, films submitted for review go through checks because of “the need to protect young viewers and preserve religious harmony and national interest.”

Whether a direct attempt at censorship or not, the film’s director Fran Lambrick submitted the piece for review with the Department of Cinema and Cultural Diffusion. Lambrick told Asian Correspondent: “Two human rights groups representatives visited the department and were told that the film was illegal. The department’s director said he received the film, but he did not want to watch it. He said it was too late and the film is already illegal.”

I-Am-Chut-Wutty-poster

Poster for “I Am Chut Wutty”. Image via YouTube.

When asked what she thought of the “illegality” of her film about Cambodia’s most famous and violently murdered environmental activist, Lambrick said:

To me this makes no sense, the film can be banned but may of course be seen privately. It makes no sense to say that a film is illegal (any more than that a person is ‘illegal’, you can only say that screening it is illegal. Having the film shown, and the memory of Chut Wutty revived is something that the Ministry of Culture certainly appears not to consider an important and inspiring story for Cambodia. However, people here think otherwise.”

And that is certainly true. After the government ban, there was a public outcry in Cambodia and abroad with major coverage in local English-language press, on social media, as well as international media. Currently, the film is being serialized and shown on social media in Khmer for free. Lambrick said that Part 4 of the film reached over 150,000 views in the first 24 hours after it was released online.

It seems that even if Cambodian government wanted to prevent the public from seeing the film, its ban has achieved quite the opposite. And the film is gaining momentum internationally as well. Several screenings have since been organized around the world –  in Rejkyavik, Iceland; Bissau, Guinea-Bissau; Oxford, UK; Bangkok, Thailand; and New York City, US – in addition to private screenings in Phnom Penh.

‘Not 1 More’

Wutty once said: “I want to see people live with freedom, to have their culture, their traditions, to be able to pursue their own lifestyle.” This is the main quote of the documentary about the environmental activist’s life and death. And it seems, that this dream of his lives on through Lambrick’s film, defying all pressure and censorship from authorities in order to save the Cambodian government’s face.

But the ban might not be the last attempt of Cambodian authorities against the film and its director. Asian Correspondent asked Lambrick if she expects more intimidation: “They let me know that I could be deported. I am not worried about that as I think it would be a bad mistake on their part.”

But it wouldn’t be the first time that a foreigner was deported from Cambodia for criticizing the government over its with environmental activities. Last year, Spanish activist and co-founder of environmentalist group Mother Nature, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, had been thrown out of Cambodia with a promise he would never be allowed back.

Lambrick will certainly be under the Cambodian authorities’ radar for the foreseeable future. Apart from the film honoring murdered Chut Wutty, the director has launched a global campaign aiming to protect and support environmental activists at risk – N1M (“Not1More”).

One of the first activists to receive support and protection from N1M in Cambodia is none other than Ouch Leng, who is also N1M founding advisor. The initiative will support him with security needs, as “he has routinely been threatened by loggers, police and criminals” in the last several months, according to a N1M statement.

N1M-banner

The N1M logo. Pic: not1more.org

‘One of the most dangerous countries to be an environmental defender’

Cambodian environmental activists are some of the most vulnerable in the world, facing threats of violence, death and other forms of intimidation whether by state authorities, loggers or the timber trade mafia. “Globally, more than two environmental defenders are killed every week. Cambodia is one of the most dangerous countries to be an environmental defender,” said Lambrick about what prompted her to launch the N1M initiative.

The new support group will also launch a campaign for the release of three jailed activists from the Mother Nature NGO – San Mala, Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang. The three were jailed on “trumped up charges due to their work to protect Cambodia’s mangrove forests from sand-dredging and are now suffering in horrible conditions,” claim N1M.

When the late Chut Wutty was asked why he took risks to patrol forests and investigate illegal logging on behalf of local communities, he simply said: “If I don’t do this, no one will – people are too afraid.” It could have been his violent death, or the great legacy of his work, which have inspired more and more Cambodians to take the fate of the Kingdom’s forests into their own hands. Communities are now carrying out their own patrols against illegal loggers instead of depending on understaffed and underpaid rangers or government officials, who are often corrupt.

As the patrols against illegal loggers scale up, so does the violence. Just last month, forest defender Phon Sopheak from Prey Lang Community Network was attacked with a machete while he was asleep during a patrol in Prey Lang forest. But it’s not only the activists and local community members who are at risk. Late last year, two forest rangers were shot dead in Preah Vihear province. And the list goes on…

Actions speak louder than words

The Cambodian government has only recently shown some commitment in the fight against illegal logging and deforestation in the Kingdom. Prime Minister Hun Sen explicitly said that army helicopters would shoot rockets at illegal loggers to deter them. And the CPP-led government has made moves to turn Prey Lang and other forests into protected areas.

But activists still harbor doubts towards the public statements. Leng called the government’s promises “a message to the international community and people about its efforts to take care of the forest in return for getting votes, but nevertheless, the people around PM Hun Sen are still trading timber,” he said in an interview with Cambodian media.

SEE ALSO: Cambodia’s illegal logging crackdown: What’s in it for Hun Sen?

Not only has nothing effective been done against deforestation in Cambodia in the last two decades, it often happens through legal Economic Land Concessions as Leng’s investigations suggest. While the government has put ELCs on hold, much more needs to be done. Leng has called on the international community to place restrictions on the purchase of timber from Vietnam and China, where most of the illegally-logged timber from Cambodia is exported. He also called on the Cambodian government to stop issuing export licenses for timber.

For those interested in watching the film “I Am Chut Wutty”, the film’s director, Fran Lambrick, has made the film available online in full, which you can watch below:

I Am Chut Wutty from Fran on Vimeo.