Chhut Vuthy’s Death and the Limits of Central Authority in Cambodia

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7th May 2012

Over the weekend, the Cambodian authorities announced that it had closed its investigation into the fatal shootings of a well-known activist Chhut Vuthy, and a military police officer after the arrest of a security guard involved in the incident. A government spokesman explained that a military policeman Ran Boroth accidentally shot dead In Rattana after the latter shot dead Vuthy during an argument on April 26th.

“This is the clear and true result confirmed by witnesses at the scene,” police spokesman Tith Sothea told reporters. “Now we have shown the truth to the public, so our work is closed for now.”

End of story.

Vuthy, founder of the local environmental watchdog, the Natural Resources Group, had been trying to expose illegal logging in Prey Lang forest in Koh Kong province (a documentary about the forest is here.) with two journalists from the Cambodia Daily. According to the official version, Vuthy was confronted by a group of men who tried to confiscate his camera’s memory car and, after a protracted argument, In Rattana shot Vuthy. Then Ran Boroth “tried to grab the weapon from In Rattana to prevent him from firing more shots but the gun discharged and killed him,” Tith Sothea said.

Ran Boroth, 26, who worked for Timbergreen, a company licensed to log the reservoir site for the 338-megawatt hydro dam being built by China Huadian, one of China’s five-biggest power generators, has now been charged with involuntary homicide, which carries a sentence of one to three years in prison.

However, in a detailed account of the killing — translated from the Khmer and published by The Cambodia Express News — the Cambodia Daily reporters Phorn Bopha, a Cambodian, and Olesia Plokhii, a Canadian, tell a different story.

They say they had stopped on an unpaved road in the forest to take pictures of a kind of yellow medicinal vine that grows there when they were confronted by a security guard, plus two uniformed soldiers and three military police officers. One of the men wore a mask and reeked of alcohol, the reporters claim.

After a tense stand-off, the verbal exchange grew angrier, and as Wutty tried to drive away, he was fired upon, but by who, the two reporters were unable to determine because of their position in the back seat of the vehicle. They then fled into the forest, after which they heard more shooting, and when they returned to the car they saw that Wutty was bleeding and one of the military police officers was injured and lying in the road.

The other officers refused to call for medical help, the reporters said. About 90 minutes later, more police officials arrived to take away the bodies.

Vuthy’s death comes not long after a similar incident in Bavet town where the local mayor shot and injured three garment workers who were protesting outside the KaoWay factory – which was also deemed a lesser crime – in this case, “unintentional injury.”

There is no doubt these are tragic cases – especially for those on the receiving end – but for all the tearing of hair from the international human rights community, they do give a salutary demonstration of the way power is usually mediated here in Cambodia. More importantly, they show how the remit of the central authorities doesn’t really extend much beyond the capital.

Out in the provinces are alternative and often competing patronage networks that are sometimes only tenuously connected to the central ones – and operate based on their own dynamic in a way that defies Western notions of governance.

Under these circumstances, the processes of “justice” are opaque and often totally fail to adhere to the notions most Westerners hold dear.

Without understanding these, however, we foreigners will (continue) to struggle to understand how this country operates.

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