Continued from part 2
One thing that makes me a little sad regarding Wutty is that I never took any pictures of him. Sounds strange but all I have is one brief interview in his office and the washed out interview in the forest. When we were out in the field he always made a point of asking not to be the center of attention. Before this protest he said to me “I would prefer you did not take pictures of me with the protesters. This is their protest; it’s not about me. He said this several times to cameramen and photographers while I was with him. He didn’t want the attention but he understood his unique and extensive knowledge of the issue, and the fact he was pretty much the only person brave enough to speak out publicly, made him a target for the media.
A little known fact about Wutty. Not long before he was killed he was asked to lead Cambodia’s first UN mission. Wutty respectfully turned it down insisting his work here at home was more important to the country.
Back to the protest. We drove back to the land concession gate in Wutty’s car to film the protesters arriving. They were chanting as they rounded the corner just 100 meters from the gate, and as they approached you could sense an air of trepidation. The villagers were not entirely sure how the police would react. Thankfully they were very calm and chose not to escalate the situation. Without guns they had little hope anyway, with maybe 30 cops on the gate they were outnumbered by at least 10-1. Several of the lower ranking military police had told us privately that they supported the villagers and didn’t want to be there. One said his family was suffering a similar situation elsewhere so he understood the villagers anger.
Several people at the front starting talking and demanded to talk to a company representative. They wanted to go into the concession to inspect the area and were not going to take no for an answer. An officer on the gate told them that one would come out but after about 10 minutes no one came. The protesters were becoming more vocal again and demanded to go in, there was a brief and very minor bit of pushing as all 300 protesters streamed through the gate chanting and waving their placards. The police gave up almost immediately and watched as the procession wound it’s way across the huge concession. Myself and a cameraman followed for about a km before we had to give up as neither of us had lights and we weren’t exactly sure what was going to happen. We knew they were going to walk about 5km to inspect a saw mill, but we weren’t sure if they would sleep out there so we headed back to the gate and the vehicles where all our gear was. Amazingly Stephanie Scawen, the Al Jazerra correspondent went past us on the back of a policeman’s motorbike. We found out later that one of the military policeman at the gate had seen that Stephanie was walking with the aid of a walking stick and offered her a lift. What a gent. If we had been a bit quicker on the uptake we could have taken the car in, unfortunatly the cops on the gate had to change their minds when officer returned to the gate. We ended up heading back to the guest house as we had no idea what was going on out in the concession and couldn’t do any more in the dark anyway. Wutty returned in the early hours and later explained that the villagers had inspected the sawmill. There had been a few calling to burn it down, but Wutty had managed to calm them and explain how vital it was that the protesters must not break the law.
In the end nothing was damaged, the company lost nothing, and the police did their job in a very responsible way. If only all protests in Cambodia could be this civilized.
The following morning we headed back up the road. Around midnight the villagers had walked back out of the concession and had slept in the forest a few km down the road. We arrived to a fairly typical village scene, with clothes being washed in a stream and food being prepared by the protesters. Interviews were conducted as the group prepared to move off toward Sandan town, where they had an educational training session planned for the next day.
As we left Wutty explained that the villagers had found a large haul of illegal timber on the edge of a village just down the road. The protesters planned to burn it.
A short video of the scene that followed was uploaded by someone and can be seen here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UeAiHS4n9mM
The villagers set about stacking the wood ready to burn, there were close to 90 large pieces of valuable timber. I took my photos while the other journalist’s buzzed around the scene. With the fire raging I left with the Al Jazerra team who wanted to get back to town to put their story together. We had only gone about 4 or 5km when we were passed by an black windowed SUV and 2 truck loads of armed police.
Oh no” we thought. This is not good so we quickly turned and head back after them. We arrived to find them forcing several villagers to put the fire out while the others stood around looking very nervous. We started to film what was going on when suddenly there was a scuffle as several policeman tried to grab Wutty and drag him off. The villagers reacted quickly jumping to his defence, grabbing sticks or whatever was at hand to take on the AK wielding police. There was a lot of shouting and screaming and I one policeman in particular was far to close to pulling the trigger. We talked about the scene later and all of us felt that had we (the foreigners) not been there this could have turned really nasty. There were 5 or 6 foreigners there pointing cameras and the District Police Chief, who was directing them, clearly had some concerns about publicity.
Anyway, the police backed off a little as the protesters, fearing for Wutty’s life, escorted him to his car and then marched alongside his car for about 8km, to a village they had planned to stop at. The police followed for about 30 minutes before driving past us and off toward Sandan. We were convinced they would be waiting at the end of the road, at the check post, but thankfully they weren’t and the day ended peacefully.
The planned training session for the next day was cancelled and Wutty was persuaded by the protesters to head back to Phnom Penh for his own safety. I stayed on for a few days to conduct survey in several villages for another report I was producing. When I returned to Phnom Penh I went to see Wutty and he explained that the Sandan Police Chief was trying to have him and one of the protesters leaders charged. At least one of the protest leaders from Sandan district had fled to the forest fearing for his life. Wutty dismissed the attempts to charge them and a few weeks later all these charges were dropped.
The last time I spoke to Wutty was a day or 2 before he left on his fateful journey to Koh Kong. While he wasn’t very keen on having to babysit the 2 journalists, he was pleased to be going as they were paying for the expenses providing an opportunity he would not otherwise have had. Wutty had worked in this area on and off for many years and was well aware of some very dubious activities taking place so he was keen to get an update on the situation. Sadly that was the last time we spoke.
A comment a long time friend of Wutty said to me that we were so lucky to have Wutty on the right side fighting illegal loggers and land grabbers. Being in the military and being quite well connected, he could very easily have become rich and relatively powerful had he wanted to. Instead he chose to fight against the destruction of his beloved countries forests and wildlife. Sadly his decision to fight against the wrongdoers ultimately cost him his life.
Chut Wutty was a remarkable individual with a very quick mind. He was incredibly disciplined and very hard working, traits, I assume, from his extensive military training. I was amazed at how he managed to have so many things going on at the same time. Nine groups of protesters to direct, 1 film crew and 1 photographer to babysit, with a snake bite thrown in for good measure, all this while fielding questions from numerous journalists in English or Khmer, as well as answering calls for help from villages elsewhere…all at the same time. And he took it all in his stride, he never look remotely stressed.
On April 26th 2012 I lost a friend who I was looking forward to working with for many years, Cambodia lost much more. I hope others will take his place but Wutty’s shoes will not be easy to fill.