THE killing of Chhut Vuthy has shaken Cambodia. A well-known environmentalist and founder of the Natural Resource Protection Group, he had travelled to Koh Kong province in the west of the country to try to film illegal loggers. He was in a heavily forested area near the construction of a 338-megawatt hydropower dam being built by China Huadian, one of China’s five biggest power generators. The project is one of four dams which have drawn widespread criticism because of adjacent logging, and the impact the dams could have on wildlife and the livelihoods of local villagers.
How Mr Chhut Vuthy was killed is not clear, but the official explanation has raised eyebrows. The Cambodian army claims that he was taking photographs without permission. He was confronted by a military police officer who demanded he hand over his camera. An argument followed, says the army. Guns went off, and when the officer realised he had killed the environmentalist, it says, he turned his AK-47 on himself, managing to pull the trigger twice to shoot himself in the stomach and chest.
Mr Chhut Vuthy’s family insists a third person was involved, and after his funeral on April 28th hundreds of family, friends and human-rights activists demanded a full inquiry along with assurances from the government that their safety would be guaranteed.
Two journalists were with Mr Chhut Vuthy when he was killed. A Canadian reporter and her Cambodian colleague say they did not see who pulled the trigger after their car was confronted by a group of soldiers. They ran into the bush and sought shelter with locals, but say they heard one of the soldiers say loudly in Khmer, “Just kill them both.”
Mr Chhut Vuthy’s death is the highest-profile killing in Cambodia since a trade union leader, Chea Vichea, was shot dead in 2004. Three women were also shot in February as they campaigned for better working conditions at a factory supplying Puma, a German sportswear company.
All three survived, but the alleged gunman, Chhouk Bandith, a district governor, was arrested only after local media reported that he was being hidden by politically connected friends. He was charged with causing “unintentional injuries”.