Since Apr. 26, a crusading forestry activist, a muckraking journalist and a 14-year-old girl have been killed in Cambodia because they tried to safeguard the country’s dwindling land reserves. They are all victims of a decade-long battle over Cambodia’s ecological future, a fight that in the past two years has turned more bloody and corrupt. Their deaths offer the world a stark vision of how crony capitalism has replaced totalitarianism as the threat to human rights in Southeast Asia. In Cambodia, the price of a human life pales in comparison with a blank check.
I worked at the Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh for one year (2011-2012), covering the oil business, land evictions, the environment and forestry. That’s why I was with Chut Wutty, the nation’s foremost forest conservationist, on Apr. 26 when he was killed. On the third day of an investigation into illegal logging in Cambodia’s Cardamom mountains, we stopped at what Wutty said was a military-controlled illegal logging outpost. There, he was shot dead during a confrontation with soldiers who were protecting the site and preventing us from leaving. A soldier was also shot dead under mysterious circumstances in the firefight, although Wutty did not fire any shots. When the murderers began concocting a cover-up, a colleague and I were threatened with death. “Just kill them both,” they icily said within earshot of us. After six hours of paralyzing fear and pacing at the scene of the murder, we were transferred from police custody into the care of our editor in chief as night fell.
We were lucky. Less than three weeks later, government security forces fatally shot 14-year-old Heng Chantha during an armed siege against villagers resisting a land eviction by a well-connected agricultural company.
Now, the latest victim is Hang Serei Odom, 42, a reporter for a small Khmer-language newspaper who wrote in early September about military collusion in the deforestation of a lush region on Cambodia’s northeast border with Vietnam. His killing was ghastly: He was found dead from two ax wounds, one to the back of his head, the other to his forehead, and stuffed in the trunk of his car. A military police officer and his wife have been charged with premeditated murder after the victim’s shoes were found in and around the couple’s home.
The state-sponsored violence in Cambodia is a local calamity with global repercussions. It underscores the ravenous behavior of China as it scours every corner of Southeast Asia for rare luxury timber and industrial-purpose woods to feed its booming economy. Although demand is high for all timber, luxury wood, which differs from industrial-grade logs due to its elegant appearance, physical makeup and species of origin, is incredibly valuable, raising the stakes for those harvesting it. Around the world, 700 activists and others have been slain in the past decade as they fought to preserve the few scraps of forest and ancestral land that have not yet been clear-cut by often disreputable multinational corporations.