In Memory of Chut Wutty – Part 2

Continued from, strangely enough, part 1.

That evening we talked and talked and Wutty spoke of some of the death threats he had received. On one occasion he told me he had to jump out of the window of the house, sneak to the river and quietly float down stream to avoid six AK wielding thugs who were approaching the house. He had been alerted to the approaching men by dogs barking and they gave Wutty time to escape. Despite this frightening incident Wutty explained that he felt it was just meant to intimidate him, he honestly didn’t believe they would have actually done anything. It was just more bravado he insisted. This was the first time I realized being friends with Wutty might not be very good for my health.

The next morning our friend was waiting outside under a tree opposite. We ignored him and loaded up my equipment. We were going to do some filming and conduct some interviews.

Rain, rain and more bloody rain… it was persistently coming down, but not in the way I have become accustomed to here. It was more like good old-fashioned British drizzle, rather than the more typical monsoonal downpour you might expect. This pretty much continued for the next 2 days, wrecking equipment and generally making life much harder than it needed be.

We headed off to take a drive along a new road that led to a nearby land concession, where I was told we would get an idea of how widespread the illegal logging was here. We pulled up next to some logs and there was a tiny break in the rain so I tried to interview a couple of the Prey Long Network guys. It hammered it down almost immediately. It took a couple of hours to get the 2 interviews done between downpours although it never actually stopped. While we were conducting the interviews there was the constant sound of multiple chainsaws at work. They were quite literally all around us. I counted at least for separate chainsaws that I could hear. One of the Prey Long guys said that he had traveled the length of the road that morning and counted more than 60 groups hard at work cutting down the villagers resin trees. It was shocking to witness every time we stopped you could just hear chainsaws everywhere and all of it well outside the concession area.

After we finished up the interview I asked if we could go and try to film some of them as it would be useful footage to have and they were very close by. The Network guys had been confiscating chainsaws anyway so they said yes, why not. So off we set, it only took a few minutes to home in on the nearest chainsaw and they guys managed to catch 2 of the illegal loggers while a 3rd ran off into the forest. Wutty and the guys started talking to the 2 they had caught and took their details and photos of the scene as well as recording GPS locations. They confiscated the chainsaw and walked the guys back to the road where they were asked to thumbprint warning notices that they understood what they were doing was illegal and that they would be prosecuted next time.

Wutty explained that most of these guys are just poor people, desperate to make a few Riel. They are employed by rich or well-connected people to do the dirty work and received a pittance for their efforts. Wutty was however angry at the Military Police who were stationed at the end of the road. “Every piece of this illegally cut timber is going right past that check post and none of it is being stopped. They just collect a fee from each truck”.

Wutty went on to explain that when they first started catching the illegal loggers themselves they had initially turned in the chainsaws to the check post. However they then discovered that they were confiscating the very same chainsaws again a few weeks later.

They let the 2 guys go and we carried on up the road, but not very far, as it was a complete mess up ahead. Wutty said it wasn’t worth trying to go any further as we would waste hours digging ourselves out of various muddy holes. The rain was still hammering it down and we were forced to abandon the filming for the day. We headed back to the house and spent much of the evening just talking about our various experiences and our shared passion for nature.

I was hoping for a dry day so I could interview Wutty somewhere, but I was to be sadly disappointed. We spent the day trying various locations just to get some shots of some nice forest, resin trees and any more B-roll I could get. I didn’t get much as it turned out but thankfully the film I was asked to make was only short so I probably had enough in the can. All that was left to do was interview Wutty. There was a brief break in the clouds and we set off across a rice field for a bit of nearby forest. With black skies all around I knew we only had a few minutes at best. We set up next to a resin tree (see the picture in part 1) and made a start… so did the rain and harder than ever. We pressed on and I signaled Wutty to speak louder, then the heavens opened and we were forced to give up, everything was drenched. After waiting about 15 minutes to see if there would be a break but it was just getting darker so we headed back to the car. It looked pretty set for the day. We arrived in Sandan town and grabbed some food before heading back out. Suddenly there was a break, the rain had actually stopped. Sod it I thought, let’s try one more time. So we pulled over and walked down a small track, away from the road and tried once more. Aghhhh! My $1,000 microphone had taken this opportune moment to pack up. It clearly wasn’t very happy with being left in the rain for so long. There was no choice for it so we packed up and went back to the house and decided to do Wutty’s interview at his office back in Phnom Penh.

That evening Wutty made arrangements for me to continue my trip to conduct my survey for the report I had to write. The following morning we said our goodbyes as he headed back to Phnom Penh, while I headed off into the forest.

Back in Phnom Penh we met up a number of times. It was always a pleasure to talk to Wutty, he was very knowledgeable and had led a truly fascinating life. From his military training to the war here, his experiences with Global Witness and with various NGO’s. How his frustration at the larger NGO’s had led to him setting up NRPG. It was such a shame that he died when he did. NRPG was on the verge of securing some significant support for once and I was very much looking forward to working with him again when he was killed.

Sandan Protest Nov 2011

The next time I went into the field with Wutty was once again to Sandan District. Again Wutty was baby sitting me but this time he was also helping a crew from Al Jazerra, while at the same time helping the Prey Long Network with the logistics of their planned protest at the CRCK rubber concession. On the way up from Phnom Penh we talked at length about many things, while Wutty fielded numerous calls from journalists looking for a quote. One call was from a distraught village chief in Rattanakiri who had managed to get Wutty’s number. Could Wutty please help them? “We are desperate, a company is stealing our land and we don’t know who to turn to”. Wutty made some notes and promised to do his best to pay them a visit soon. “I can’t say no to them but I don’t know where I will find the time to go there” he remarked. At that point Wutty was already helping communities across Prey Long, in Mondulkiri, in Kratie, Koh Kong and another near Kampong Chhnang. For one man he was taking on an enormous amount of work.

On the trip up Wutty explained what was going on. The villagers were coming from all across Prey Long. There were several groups, some traveling 9 days (this is not a typo some really did travel for NINE days) to reach Sandan. While Wutty didn’t arrange the protest he did help them with their organization and logistics. Again his military training came to the fore.

Wutty took a call and didn’t look happy. He explained that there was a bit of a problem as apparently word of the protest had appeared in the press. CCHR had gone against the networks wishes and told the press of the planned protest. Wutty was not impressed. “The network guys planned to try to catch some illegal loggers to show to the press they had invited, but now there will be no loggers around when we get there”. He was right it was quiet as anything when we arrived.

As we approached Sandan, Wutty was juggling his phones again. Wutty explained the situation “Some of the villagers have arrived but are hiding in the forest nearby waiting to meet up with the other groups. Because of the article in the press there are a lot of police up there now trying to stop them, so they are trying to avoid them”. When we went up to the concession gate we found a few journalists there already. Nothing was happening. The gate was manned by a number of bored looking police with AK47’s. We hung about until it started to get dark and then headed off to the guesthouse in Sandan.

The next day we headed back up there. On the way we passed several truckloads of police, at least 50, by my count. This wasn’t promising I thought, they’d stop the protest before it can even start. Everyone was more than a little concerned by the AK47’s on the gate the previous day, so we were all very relived to see that someone had told them to put them away. Having a number of foreign press with cameras with us may have had something to do with that. We hung about for hours getting more than a little bored. The police on the gate were very pleasant and didn’t appear to be interested a serious confrontation.

Out in the forest the villagers had all arrived but were having trouble avoiding the police who had been stationed all around the concession. As it turned out some of the groups were able to walk right past the policemen while they were dozing in their hammocks. Wutty told us that one of the villagers had been bitten by a snake and was being taken to get treatment. Things were a little confused right now and they might not be able to do this today.

We waited until the light began to fade and the journalists started heading back to Sandan town. Suddenly we rounded a corner, maybe 3km from the gate and there they were. Hundreds of them, carrying placards and chanting. As we got out and started clicking away they passed us looking very determined.

To be continued…

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About Allan Michaud

English Wildlife Photographer/Environmental Filmmaker based in Cambodia
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