Chut Wutty: Murdered, Koh Kong Province, 26th April 2012.
This blog is my way of remembering my murdered friend Chut Wutty. He was an outstanding individual and one of the most intelligent and capable people I have ever met. In the context of Cambodia he is almost irreplaceable. Certainly it will take 2 maybe 3 people to do what he could do. I was fortunate to have traveled with Wutty for several weeks during 2011 and early 2012 and will recount those experiences over the coming days.
Sandan July 2011
I met Wutty for the first time in late June 2011, a little less than a year before he was murdered. I had been in contact with him to enquire about the logistics of working in an area of Kampong Thom that I was not familiar with, Sandan District. I had been asked by an NGO to produce a short report and a short film on what was occurring there. Massive deforestation.
We talked for sometime and discovered that despite moving in the same circles over the past decade, somehow we had never met. With regard to my planned trip Wutty suggested I travel with him, as he had to go there in a few weeks to conduct an educational training session for villagers on their legal rights.
I was immediately struck by his intelligence and apparent determination to do something to help save Cambodia’s fast dwindling forests. He was a rare individual indeed. We met on a number of occasions over the next few weeks and shared information on Prey Long and other areas we both knew well. I had been working in the northern areas of Prey Long on and off since 2008 but had never visited Sandan, which is on the western side. We talked at length and were continually amazed how our lives had overlapped on many occasions yet we had never met until now.
Finally the day of the trip came and I joined Wutty in his ancient Landcruiser for the 5 hour journey. We spent the next 5 days together almost 24/7 and talked at length about all kinds of subjects. Prey Long, illegal loggers, human rights abuses, but also about our past experiences. Wutty talked of his time in Russia training with the military, of his experiences working with Global Witness and with the various international NGO’s in the late 1990’s and 2000’s. He spoke of how he felt he was directly responsible for the current law enforcement set up in Cambodia’s protected areas, where military police work in conjunction with ministry officials to patrol these areas. He was somewhat reticent about his role in this as he felt he was partly responsible for the mess that the protected areas are in today. He felt that instead of helping to protect Cambodia’s natural resources, he had only succeeded in putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
Even after traveling with him for just a couple of days it was very apparent that he had a very fast brain. He was constantly juggling multiple phones as he responded to requests for quotes from journalists or calls for help from remote villages who were desperate for help to stop encroachment on their lands. At the same time he was making arrangements for the education sessions and babysitting me. We arrived in Sandan town in the late afternoon and headed directly to a village a few km further on where we would stay. Wutty had warned me about the problems he had experienced here, pushy officials who seemed to treat the district as their personal fiefdom and death threats to him and to others of the Prey Long Network. He wasn’t convinced that the planned education session would actually take place because of the local officials, despite having written permissions from Phnom Penh.
As we passed through Sandan town Wutty pointed out that we had picked up an admirer. A motorbike was now following our every turn and as we pulled into the house that we would be staying at, the motorbike continued on past. Wutty explained that local officials knew him and his car and that this was now ‘normal’ when he came here.
That evening we talked at length and I voiced my concerns for his safety. He spoke of a number of death threats that he and others had received, although he dismissed most of them as simply bravado on the part of the officials who he felt were just trying to scare them. Wutty had the upmost faith in his abilities and the fact that he had trained many of Cambodia’s military meant that he was well known and highly respected by most soldiers. Never the less he was always vigilant, and he castigated villagers on a number of occasions for not being more careful. “Are you watching that guy on the bike?” he said as we were in the process of confiscating a chainsaw. A man in a military uniform with an AK47 was watching from a distance and rode off when Wutty pointed towards him. “You have to be more careful, these people will stop at nothing, you need to be aware at all times. Especially out here in the forest”. Because of his time with the Russian military Wutty was possibly Cambodia’s most highly trained soldier and I think it was, in part, this training that made him so effective.
Over the next 5 days we had an almost permanent ‘friend’ to keep an eye on us. Even when we woke up there was a gentleman standing outside the house watching. It clearly wasn’t meant to be subtle.
Day two: We packed up various educational posters and papers and headed off to the village where the training session would take place. As we turned onto the main road we passed several military police on motorbikes who sped past us a few seconds later. “They are going to warn the officials that we are coming” Wutty said. When we arrived at the place we met a number of people from other NGO’s such as the human rights group CCHR and a team from the UN too. It seemed they expected problems.
As Wutty started putting up posters a district official arrived with a number of heavily armed police and military police. They started talking to Ou Virak of CCHR and the argument began. It was to continue for more than 2 hours. Wutty joined the discussion and the official demanded that they take down the posters and leave. “You do not have permission for this” he said. “Yes we do” came the reply from Wutty, in a very matter of fact way. “We have written permission from Phnom Penh, you have no right to stop this”.
The official responded angrily “You have no right to be here, this is a political meeting. If you do not leave you will be arrested”.
As Wutty and Virak rebuffed his every argument the official became more and more angry, making increasingly bizarre statements.
“This is a political meeting, you are from the Human Rights Party, look it says ‘human rights’ on this poster” he said as he gesticulated at a poster.
Wutty calmly replied “No… that poster has quotes of important sections of the Cambodian constitution. That particular line is talking about the basic human rights of all Khmers. Are you suggesting it’s illegal to teach people about their basic rights under Cambodian Law?” People in the gathering crowd laughed out loud and the already angry official looked apoplectic. From this point the argument became somewhat heated as Wutty’s calm exterior crumbled in the face of increasingly outrageous statements from the official.
He tried another approach. “You don’t have the right permissions, you do not have permissions from local officials.” Wutty responded that “We don’t need your permission, but anyway we delivered copies (of the permission from Phnom Penh) to the district office a few days ago.”
“This is my area you need my permission”, screamed the official, much to the amusement of the crowd. That comment clearly rose a few eyebrows.
The official disappeared briefly and returned with another official and more armed police. This time he stomped around ordering his subordinate to photograph all the vehicles, then all the outsiders present. The handful of villagers who had turned up for the training looked on somewhat bemused. Then the official, his photographer and several armed police started taking names and photographing the villagers. Wutty commented, “This is just an attempt to intimidate the villagers.” The villagers gave their names but none looked remotely concerned. One commented later that they simply didn’t care about the official’s threats anymore as they had lost too much already. Their livelihoods and their family’s futures were at stake.
One of the many abilities that enabled Wutty to be so effective was his amazing memory. He could quote Cambodia’s land and forest laws off the top of his head. His blunt but generally calm approach was very effective and interesting to witness. It was hard for anyone; even officials to argue with him. I saw him confront officials and people conducting illegal activities on several occasions and he just calmly explained what they were doing wrong and why and if necessary he started quoting relevant laws. He also carried a copy of the various laws in the car too and brought them out on several occasions to prove a point.
During a lull in the argument, Wutty quietly pointed out to me a very dubious looking character in dark sunglasses and a military style jacket, who Wutty said was a hired thug for the local officials. He had allegedly threatened to kill Wutty on an earlier visit to Sandan, although Wutty again dismissed the threat as bravado.
Here is a short video of parts of the day’s events that someone posted online. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sahS88OXUXE
The argument went back and forth for the next two hours before CCHR decided they would give up. Wutty was not impressed. “That’s typical, we are right, we have all the correct papers and yet CCHR will not pursue this any further.” He said.
Wutty tried for another 30 minutes or so as the other NGO’s packed up. Finally, a very frustrated Wutty admitted defeat as the other groups prepared to leave.
We packed up and headed off to find a cold drink… followed, of course, by our new friend. Frustrated by the morning’s events we started discussing my report and film, and how I was going to get to the various villages to collect my data.
To be continued…