* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.Chut Wutty was one of Cambodia’s most vocal activists. He was murdered by military police while investigating illegal logging and land grabs
It is a year to the day since Chut Wutty, one of Cambodia’s most vocal activists, was murdered by military police while investigating illegal logging and land grabs.
I remember that morning clearly. I was in Washington DC to give a presentation on land and forest grabbing at the World Bank. The talk didn’t go quite as I had planned - I broke down as I spoke of Wutty’s death, which I had heard about just hours before. I described how he had had stood up for a civilian population that has suffered for decades at the hands of a brutal government determined to strip the country of its rich natural resources and funnel the profits into private bank accounts. As I spoke, I was struck by the powerful response from participants to this insight into the human tragedy behind the world’s land-grabbing crisis, during what are otherwise abstract discussions on international policy.
Sadly, Wutty’s death has not served as a wake-up call for Cambodia’s donors or allies. The crisis he was fighting in the country’s farms and forests has got worse, as an increasingly brazen elite helps itself to any land it thinks it can sell to investors, and bulldozes dissenters or communities out of the way. These communities have almost no say in this process and see few of the benefits. Aid donors have consistently failed to speak out against this exploitation, or ask why they are required to prop up basic state services while those in power strip away the natural resource wealth that could lift a generation out of poverty.
Land grabs are fundamentally changing the fabric of Cambodian society. Nearly three quarters of the country’s arable land has been leased out by the government to investors since 2008, affecting 400,000 people and forcing a nation of small-scale farmers to work on plantations. The timber cartels that Wutty was exposing have diversified their interests, buying up vast tracts of land, often as an excuse to get access to the last of Cambodia’s supposedly protected forests. Forced evictions are common, and an increasingly desperate civilian population with no outside help to call on often faces violent conflict with the authorities.
The backlash is typically brutal, usually meted out by state forces against the people they are supposed to protect. Cases of harassment, intimidation and detention have rocketed since Wutty’s death, with Cambodian NGO ADHOC reporting 232 arrests in 2012 relating to land and housing issues in 2012, a 144 per cent rise on 2011. Meanwhile, human rights group LICADHO described 2012 as ‘the most violent year ever documented in terms of the authorities using lethal force against activists’.
Wutty has not been the only fatality; just a few weeks after his murder Heng Chantha, a 14 year-old girl, was shot dead by military police during a land dispute in Kratie Province. In September, Hang Serei Oudom, a journalist investigating timber cartels in the north-east of the country, was found in a car boot with an axe in his head. No one has been prosecuted in either of these cases, while a shambolic investigation into Wutty’s death was dropped in October.
But while ordinary Cambodians are being driven to the brink, outwardly the regime’s confidence increases. In the past year, Cambodia has made use of several opportunities to present itself as an emerging power on the world stage, with President Obama visiting for the East Asia Summit and the country considered for the regional seat on the UN Security Council. Meanwhile, the land grabs get worse and the aid money continues to flow in.
It’s worth noting that while this problem in Cambodia is particularly pronounced, it is far from unique. After Wutty’s death, Global Witness published findings which showed a huge spike in the number of activists and ordinary citizens who had been killed defending rights to land and forests. The annual total had doubled in three years to a rate of two people a week, highlighting how increasing competition for natural resources is pushing more and more people onto the frontline of the global land grab. It is vital that the secrecy that pervades the land sector is lifted and that the UN and other international bodies start to address land and environmental concerns as human rights issues.
In Cambodia, the situation is dire but not helpless. The country will soon find itself in the spotlight as the general election approaches in July. Land is already dominating the agenda, and the appeal court’s surprising decision last month to release broadcaster Mam Sonando following trumped up charges of leading a coup shows that the government still covets credibility on the international stage.
This influence must be leveraged. How many more Cambodians need to be arrested, detained or killed before the rest of the world speaks out? Outside pressure is needed for the government to open up the resource sector and allow the Cambodian people to finally see the benefits of their country’s abundant natural wealth. Then, at least, Chut Wutty and others will not have died in vain.
Megan Macinnes is the head of Global Witness land campaign
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