More than 400 activists marched Friday to the forest site where prominent Cambodian anti-logging campaigner Chut Wutty was killed and held a memorial ceremony there, as a visiting U.N. rights official called for justice in the case that has sparked a national outcry.
The group, hailing from ten provinces across the country, marched through the forest in Mondul Seima district of southern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province where Chut Wutty was investigating illicit logging operations when he was fatally shot on April 26.
Carrying tree branches and, in lieu of flowers, sticks of incense, they stopped at the site where the environmentalist, former president of Cambodia’s Natural Resources Conservation Group, was allegedly gunned down by a military police officer who was also found dead at the scene.
Chut Wutty’s son, Chhoeuy Odomraksmey, 19, teared up while reading a tribute to his father at the crime scene, while supporters, some carrying posters and photographs saying, “I am Chut Wutty,” prayed for the activist.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights Director Ou Virak, who organized the ceremony and march, said the gathering is meant to show that activists in the country will not be intimidated despite the threat of violence.
“Killing Chut Wutty can’t silence us. There will be a hundred thousand people like Chut Wutty,” he said.
Rights groups have called for a thorough and impartial investigation into the case, the highest-profile death of an activist in the country in years.
The two-day march, which began Thursday, was also to patrol the forest in a bid to identify any illegal timber-extracting activities.
The group’s action is meant to send a strong message to illegal loggers and anyone who might be behind them, the group said.
“If the government doesn’t want to protect the forest, we will protect the forest,” said Doung Deoum, an activist from northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province who joined the procession.
He added as long as the government allows them, they want to be forest guards.
Chut Wutty’s Cambodia’s Natural Resources Conservation Group’s members style themselves as Cambodia's "Avatars," based on Hollywood's popular environmentally-themed animation film.
The activists had been most active in Prey Lang forests in central Cambodia where green groups say illegal logging has intensified.
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.
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.
After the ceremony on Friday, the group marched into the compound of the Timber Green logging company, whose security guard has been charged with killing the military police officer who allegedly shot Chut Wutty.
Outside the company compound, the activists took pictures of piles of wood as possible evidence of illegal logging.
The group will camp the night at a nearby pagoda before starting a new patrol on Saturday.
While the activists were in the forest, a visiting U.N. human rights official paid his respects to the activist at his grave in Kandal province and called for a fair investigation into the case.
U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, Surya Prasad Subedi, visiting the country on a fact-finding mission on land disputes, expressed concern over violence against rights activists.
“Let me say that in this and other cases in 2012, we have seen the use of live ammunition against human rights defenders. It is a worrying trend to say the least,” he told reporters at a press conference at the end of his trip.
“I understand the investigation of the incident is ongoing by the provincial investigating judge. I look forward to a speedy and just resolution of this case,” he said, adding that the development of Cambodia’s land and natural resources could be positive if done in a sustainable and equitable manner.
He welcomed new orders by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s, issued just after Chut Wutty’s death, to temporarily suspend land concessions that have led to land grabs in villages and illegal logging activities in forest reserves.
“This is a good step in the right direction,” he said.
Subedi, who is due to make a formal report on land issues later this year to the U.N. Human Rights Council, said in his initial findings that on the mission he had encountered issues of misconduct by concession companies or their subcontractors in many communities.
The issues ranged from land grabs, confiscation of livestock, the destruction of homes, and property, damage to burial grounds, and physical aggression and armed intimidation, he said.
He added that in some cases state agents such as provincial officers, forestry officials, and even police military units are involved in protecting companies and their concessions.
Reported by Chin Chetha for RFA’s Khmer service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.