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Cambodian army soldiers attack Chut Wutty, November 2011. Photo: Vanessa de Smet Last Line Productions / N1M.
Cambodian army soldiers attack Chut Wutty, November 2011. Photo: Vanessa de Smet Last Line Productions / N1M.
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    Mao Chanthoern, a core member of the Prey Lang Network core group, at home. Photo: Vanessa de Smet Last Line Productions / N1M.

Banned: premiere of film probing Cambodian ecodefender's murder

Rod Harbinson

21st April 2016

A film investigating the 2012 murder of a forest defender has been banned by the Cambodian Government, writes Rod Harbinson. Chut Wutty's campaign to protect the forest on which his community depends clashed with powerful business and military interests. A first attack by soldiers was held off by campaigners, but...

Chut Wutty was shot dead just over four years ago while taking two journalists to witness a yellow vine depot in the Cardamom mountain forests. The series of events is disputed and the murder has never been properly investigated by the authorities.

The Cambodian Government has banned the premiere screening of the documentary 'I am Chut Wutty', released this week, which recounts the life and death of the Cambodian forest activist.

Government forces are widely believed to have been behind the activist's murder in 2012 and the killing has never been properly investigated.

Two days before the screening was due, director and producer Fran Lambrick announced the news on social media:

"Our screening this week at Meta House has been cancelled by order of Mr. Sin Chan Saya, Department of Cinema and Cultural Diffusion - why is that Mr. Sin Chan Saya? Are you not proud to share this story of Cambodia's forest defenders?"

Lambrick makes her film debut with the 54 minute documentary which she directed while researching her doctorate in Cambodia's Prey Lang forest.

The film is set amid a crisis in Cambodia which has in recent years seen the once extensive tropical forests ravaged by some of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Wutty had joined forces with the communities of the Prey Lang forest - the last lowland forest in the country and dwindling fast.

Cinematographer and co-director Vanessa de Smet uses narrow depth of camera focus to conjure up the mystical atmosphere of Prey Lang. The rich cinematography of the film artfully juxtaposes the livelihood activities of the people in the forest, with corrupt commercial logging pressures.

Much revered by the local people for spiritual reasons and as a rich source of livelihood, the film follows a woman resin collector who remains anonymous: "When I was very young my grandparents told me stories about Prey Lang. I was 10-12 years old. They said that years ago Prey Lang was so full of animals. But over the years the animals left because the forest is disappearing."

Passionate about the forest and her role in the community forest protection movement 'The Prey Lang Network', she explained: "We go to patrol twice a month. But if we don't patrol it [the forest] will get destroyed."

Since 2001 hundreds of Economic Land Concessions (ELC) have been handed out by the government and are widely blamed for driving the country's deforestation. Prey Lang is surrounded by ELCs which are encroaching on the forest.

For example Sokphaknica Investment Co Ltd is a rubber plantation company with an ELC in nearby Tumring. The film shows an interviews the Chief Executive Officer who says he would like to expand his business in the area. He says of the local farmers: "It's a shame, I don't want them to have those fields."

Chut Wutty - a local hero

The film portrays Wutty as a modest, unassuming, but nevertheless, fearless, persistent and effective campaigner, who galvanised community dismay and turned it into an effective forest monitoring network. "The people decided to burn the timber once and for all to stop the company profiting from it", said Wutty, as the film shows piles of tropical timber set alight by members of the community.

Wutty is seen being pursued and grabbed by armed guards during the rally in November 2011.  The community gathered and the guards backed off and Wutty escaped unharmed this time, amid a heated standoff. "Initially I didn't expect them to target me", said Wutty. "Luckily the community immediately came to help me. Without them I would have been in trouble."

Video: Trailer for I Am Chut Wutty Trailer from Fran on Vimeo.

The Cambodian logging industry is notoriously fuelled by corruption said to reach the highest levels of the regime. Sam Chanty, Chut Wutty's wife said: "He was offered bribes many times but he refused. Then my husband started investigating illegal yellow vine harvesting". This lucrative forest vine is used for manufacturing drugs and is highly prized by criminal gangs.

Wutty was shot dead just over four years ago on 19th April 2012 while taking two journalists to witness a yellow vine depot in the Cardamom mountain forests. According to one of the foreign journalists present, three armed men arrived on motorbikes. Wutty was shot at the wheel of his Toyota landcruiser as he tried to drive away from the scene.

The truth will never be known

Details of what happened that day remain murky. One of the armed assailants was also shot dead which was later attributed to one of the other guards Ran Boroth. Boroth's lawyer claimed he shot dead the guard who first started shooting. He was convicted of manslaughter but released just two weeks after his trial.

The series of events is disputed and the murder has never been properly investigated by the authorities. As Wutty's wife said: "We don't know which of them fired." Looking through the last series of photos in Wutty's camera, his son reflects on the tragic events of his Father's death: "He looks so angry ... that's the last photo in his camera - there aren't any more."

The film's release coincides with the fourth anniversary of Wutty's death and comes at a time when environmental activists are globally being persecuted like never before. In March Honduran activist Berta Cáceres' assassination was followed days after with the murder of fellow activist Nelson García.

Meanwhile in Cambodia three environmental activists, San Mala, Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang, from activist group Mother Nature, remain in detention since last August. The group's founder in exile, Alexandro Gonzalez-Davidson is also charged.

In response to the worsening global crisis Lambrick is launching an organisation called 'Not One More' as a "global support and protection network for environmental defenders". Lambrick said:

"Front line environmental defenders are critical in fighting climate change, protecting our natural resources and upholding human rights and cultural identity, yet they face violent reprisals, threats and criminalization."

 


 

Rod Harbinson is a journalist, filmmaker and photographer who has reported on some of the biggest environmental issues confronting the developing world for over 20 years. He has particular experience of the Southeast Asian region where he has documented and supported the struggles of indigenous and local people to protect their lands in the face of development.

Watch 'I am Chut Wutty' via video on demand.

 

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