Updated at 4:15 p.m. EST on 2012-04-26
A leading Cambodian environmental activist who spearheaded a campaign to expose state-linked illegal logging was gunned down by military police Thursday as he was investigating deforestation near a Chinese-built dam.
Chut Wutty was leading two journalists from a local newspaper to witness what he thought was illegal logging activities when he was fatally shot by military police in Cambodia's southwestern Koh Kong province, a police official said.
He is believed to be the most prominent activist to meet a violent death since Cambodian labor activist Chea Vichea's 2004 assassination.
Koh Kong deputy judicial police chief Kong Yan said the activist was gunned down by a military police officer guarding the logging site in Koh Kong province's Modul Seima district.
Kong Yan said he had interviewed the Cambodia Daily
journalists who had accompanied Chut Wutty.
According to the witnesses, Chut Wutty was shot while he was inside his car, Kong Yan said.
The 43-year-old activist was pronounced dead on the spot, succumbing to gunshot wounds in his stomach and leg.
National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said the military police officer who shot Chut Wutty was also killed.
He said that the officer was killed by his own bullet, which ricocheted off the car and hit him.
The Associated Press news agency quoted Kheng Tito as saying that Chut Wutty was shot in a clash at a checkpoint during which the activist also fatally shot the military police officer.
The report could not be verified.
Chut Wutty, who had previously received military police training, was unarmed, Kong Yan said.
The shooting occurred near a dam built by China National Heavy Machinery and located near an area where illegal logging activities were suspected, sources said.
Kong Yan said the incident occurred after the military officer confiscated cameras belonging to the journalists and Chut Wutty, as the activist was attempting to drive into the logging site.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua called Chut Wutty a “national hero," saying he had protected Cambodia's "national soul—the forest and land.”
She called on Prime Minister Hun Sen to order an independent investigation into the incident and immediately stop awarding logging concessions to private companies.
Mu Sochua told Hun Sen, “Wutty’s soul reminds me about your assurance that if you can’t crack down on illegal logging, you would resign. I don’t want such an extreme move, but this time you should put an end to such land concessions."
Cambodia's Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak told RFA that credit should go not only to Chut Wutty, but also to the military police officer who died.
Khieu Sopheak appeared outraged when a reporter asked him about the investigation into the killing of the activist.
“You should not only ask about the situation of one victim, but the two people who were killed,” he said, accusing RFA of being biased toward the activist.
Chut Wutty’s son Chhoeuy Oddomreaksmey also called on the authorities and the international community to investigate the circumstances in which his father died.
“He was killed inside a car,” he said. “It is unjust. He is a nationalist—he wanted to protect the country’s natural resources—but he was killed. This is brutal."
“My father told me that if you die, you must die with dignity,” he said.
Chut Wutty, who left a wife and three children, was president of Cambodia’s Natural Resources Conservation Group, whose members style themselves as Cambodia's "Avatars," based on Hollywood's popular environmentally-themed animation film.
The activists had been conducting constant "patrols" in the heart of the Prey Lang forest to check illegal logging and other activities in a bid to protect the sprawling 3,600-square kilometer (1,400-square mile) forest area.
The Cambodian government has identified Prey Lang, which hosts Southeast Asia's largest lowland evergreen forest, as an important area for conservation, with high potential for carbon-credit financing, but it remains unprotected, environmental groups say.
The Prey Lang Community Network, set up to help in the protection of the area, says more than 40,000 hectares (98,840 acres) in the forest have been granted for rubber plantations alone, while 27 exploration licenses and related concessions have been handed to mining firms.
Community leader Sim Sean had told RFA that local authorities had received bribes from the company as they cleared the forest to establish the rubber plantation.
Most of the wood from Prey Lang is smuggled into China and Vietnam, where it is made into furniture and exported worldwide, some environmental groups have charged.
Reported by RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.