An environmental activist based in the Areng valley region of southwest Cambodia’s Koh Kong province on Tuesday urged authorities to launch an investigation into an attempt on his life over the weekend, saying he is no longer safe in his own home and expects his would-be killers will strike again.
An unknown assailant fired several shots at activist Ven Eth at around 10:00 p.m. on May 12 as he walked around 10 meters (33 feet) from his home in Chrak Russey village, in Thmar Baing district’s Chum Noap commune, to his outdoor toilet.
The gunfire missed him, but struck the wall of his bathroom, he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that he fled the area shortly afterwards to stay with an acquaintance.
“I think that if I continue to stay there, they will surely return to try to kill me again—this person will not abandon their plan,” Ven Eth said.
“I call on competent authorities to investigate the matter and monitor this case, so as to identify the person who attempted to assassinate me. I want to return safely to my village.”
According to Ven Eth, his assailant may have been politically motivated—as he is a former member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November over an alleged plot to topple the government—or sought revenge against him for his work exposing illegal deforestation.
“Firstly, I am former CNRP member—I was lobbied to defect to [the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) after the dissolution of the CNRP], but … I always refused, which has angered people,” he said.
“Moreover, I am also an environmental activist. This also angered people since those who destroy forests and those who protect them are always at odds.”
The attempt on Ven Eth’s life came following a legal complaint he had lodged with local authorities in connection with what he said was an April 17 death threat made against him by Tel Chan, the vice-chief of Chum Noap and a member of the CPP.
Ven Eth said he had initially lodged his complaint with Chum Noap Administrative Police Station, but received no resolution, so he moved himself, his wife and his children into hiding to protect their safety.
After spending two weeks in an undisclosed location, he had returned to his village last week without his family to testify at the Thmar Baing Administrative Police Station about the death threat, and the failure of commune authorities to adequately look into the case.
Ven Eth said that the two sides had “agreed to a compromise” and his case was “resolved” on May 9, but nonetheless, the attempt was made on his life three days later.
“I thought that when Tel Chan made an agreement to ensure my safety, everything was resolved, plus, the issue was widely known, so I assumed that no one would dare do anything,” he said.
“I returned to clean before bringing my wife back home, and it was then that these people unexpectedly decided to get revenge and go ahead with their attempt on my life. So, at this time, I can’t return home until the situation is fixed.”
In addition to pursuing complaints with the Chum Noap and Thmar Baing Administrative Police Stations, Ven Eth said he intends to ask for help from human rights organizations. He said he doesn’t expect local authorities to intervene on his behalf, because they have no interest in seeing his case settled.
In the meantime, while he remains in hiding, his family is running short on funds and his children are unable to attend school, he said.
Authorities in Chum Noap and Thmar Baing were not immediately available to comment on Ven Eth’s case.
Huor, a legal advocate with local rights group Licadho, told RFA that the authorities were obligated to investigate Ven Eth’s case to a satisfactory conclusion, according to Cambodian law.
“Moreover, they must seek various measures to ensure his safety, since Ven Eth wants to return to his home, instead of having to flee and remain in hiding like this,” Huor said.
“He has never had any dispute with anyone for as long as he has been living in Chum Noap commune … until this threat. It seems to me that the relevant parties are exactly those who were involved in the same [threat] case, and should be subject to investigation in order to determine the truth.”
Lim Kim Soar, an environmental activist who regularly works in the Areng valley, told RFA that Ven Eth is a dedicated campaigner who regularly advocated against the construction of the controversial Chhay Areng dam, which opponents say would force more than 300 ethnic minority families off of their ancestral lands and destroy the habitats of endangered animals.
She said that Ven Eth’s case has caused other activists working in the region to fear for their own safety.
“I always thought that this village and commune were safe, until I saw that regular citizens were at risk of being shot at like this,” Lim Kim Soar said.
“Now, [Ven Eth] has fled the village where he used to live, leaving his house locked. His house used to be a place for people to gather to drink coffee … but now it is quiet. I feel so sorry for him.”
The attempt on Ven Eth’s life came weeks after supporters held a low-profile ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh to mark the sixth anniversary of the still-unsolved murder of Cambodian environmental activist Chut Wutty.
Shot to death on April 26, 2012 while investigating illegal logging in Koh Kong’s Mondul Seima district, Chut Wutty had been active in organizing communities to protect Cambodian forests against land grabs. He had also campaigned against the government’s granting of land concessions in national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.
Noting that an official investigation into his father’s death was closed in October 2013 when a court in Koh Kong province abruptly ended its proceedings, Chut Wutty’s son vowed at the time to continue to fight for justice in his father’s case.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.