Dateline investigates the killing of Cambodian environmental activist Chut Wutty and whether he knew something that his killers didn't want revealed.
Airdate: 
Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 21:32
Channel: 
SBS One

Chut Wutty was one of Asia's leading environmental activists, tirelessly working to prevent illegal logging in Cambodia.

But on 26th April, he was gunned down in mysterious circumstances in the protected Cardamom Forest.

When David O'Shea unravels the story behind his death for Dateline, he finds allegations of corruption and cover-up, with government investigators giving several conflicting accounts of what happened.

So who's really behind Chut Wutty's death? And was there something the activist knew that his killers didn't want revealed?

WATCH - Click to see David's report.

EXTRA - Read more about Chut Wutty's life and the tributes that have been paid to him by following the links on the right-hand side of the page.

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Photo (Chut Wutty): AAP

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Transcript

Three weeks ago one of Asia's leading environmental activists was gunned down in Cambodia. Chut Wutty had been documenting illegal logging in the protected Cardamom Forest, one of the last remaining pristine areas in south-east Asia. What it was that he found and who killed him is clouded in mystery, within a day of Wutty being killed David O'Shea was flying into Cambodia to pick up on the trail of Wutty's execution.

REPORTER: David O'Shea

They came from far and wide to farewell Cambodia's eco warrior. Chut Wutty was a soldier turned environmental activist - a defender of the forests and an arch enemy of the business interests exploiting them.

SAM CHANTHY (Translation): He was very, very brave. He wasn't afraid of anyone, because he thought he was doing the right thing.

Wutty was shot and killed in a jungle clearing in a remote and lawless corner of the country. He had been investigating in an area where illegal logging is rife. But many here believe he may have uncovered something else.

SAM CHANTHY (Translation): I want to appeal to people inside and outside Cambodia to find justice for my husband, because he was killed unjustly.

MARCUS HARDTKE, ENVIRONMENTAL CAMPAIGNER: What happened is that we reached the stage in Cambodia where people get killed for looking at things and they get killed by government officials working for an illegal raquet.

Marcus Hardtke had a close and unique partnership with Wutty in the battle to protect Cambodia's natural resources. He has been flying under the radar for years as an investigator for environmental campaign organisations working behind the scenes, he was channelling funds to Wutty, who was active on the ground.

MARCUS HARDTKE: It's a risky job. It's like war. It's a front line and if you stand up against a real Mafia organisation which is what it is, it's textbook organised crime, you live dangerously.

CHUT WUTTY (Translation): Let's get to the point.

MAN (Translation): No need, you are in my territory.

CHUT WUTTY (Translation): Can you listen to me? Just listen to me for ten minutes.

Whether it was arguing the point with officials trying to shut down his workshops on human rights, confronting illegal loggers and photographing them in the act, or out in the forests leading and inspiring protests, Wutty had many enemies.

ALLAN MICHAUD, PHOTOGRAPHER AND FILM-MAKER: He's a huge loss. He really is a massive loss. I have never met anyone so utterly dedicated to what they are doing.

Wildlife photographer and film maker Allan Michaud also worked closely with Wutty and says his military background made him a force to be reckoned with. Allan took this footage last year as Wutty led villagers on patrol through their supposedly protected forest home.

CHUT WUTTY (Translation): Do you want to see the timber?

VILLAGERS (Translation): Yes!

After discovering a stockpile of unmarked illegal timber they took drastic action.

CHUT WUTTY (Translation): Let's start work, pile everything up and burn it.

ALLAN MICHAUD: Nobody knew whose it was and they decided to burn it, which is what they have been doing a lot of up there. Shortly after setting fire to it the local Police Chief turned up.

Things got ugly.

POLICE (Translation): Beat him! Everyone grab him.

That's Wutty on the ground.

POLICE (Translation): Get out!

ALLAN MICHAUD: Then they tried to grab Wutty and arrest him. At that point the protesters jumped to his aid. They grabbed sticks. Despite the fact they are facing people with AK47s they grabbed sticks and tried to defend Wutty.

The villagers managed to get Wutty out, surrounding his car they escorting him to safety.

VILLAGER (Translation): We feel very sad that he gave up his life for the good of the nation.

WOMAN (Translation): I have come to pay my respects to Chut Wutty's spirit.

We join hundreds of Wutty's friends and colleagues on a pilgrimage to the place he died. As we weave our way through the central Cardamom Mountains, Marcus and Allan are shocked to see how this once dense forest has been opened up.

ALLAN MICHAUD: I had no idea they have gone to this. This was just a tiny little track.

MARCUS HARDTKE: Shows you how quick it can all fade away. Within a few years - boom.

Some of the construction is on a grand scale. Four huge hydro-electric dams are being built here by Chinese business interests. Not far from where Wutty was killed we stop at a fenced compound with two guard towers and flood lights.

MARCUS HARDTKE: Oh, yeah.

REPORTER: Wood?

MARCUS HARDTKE: Yeah.

REPORTER: Is it timber?

MARCUS HARDTKE: Yeah. It looks a bit like Rosewood, like black wood and it seems to be luxury.

MAN: Hello.

Rosewood sells here at source for thousands of dollars per cubic metre. We are told that the timber behind the fence is legally obtained from the area to be flooded by one of the dams which an employee says they have a permit to clear.

EMPLOYEE (Translation): It is from the tree clearing for the dam that we won the tender and we clear them from there and nowhere else.

The company is called Timbergreen, one of several that Wutty was investigating when he was killed.

EMPLOYEE (Translation): Hello, boss. I'm talking to them. I told them I couldn't give a longer interview. They keep asking me things, but only normal questions.

Another man shows up and he is looking a little menacing with something hidden under his shirt.

MARCUS HARDTKE: Yeah, they have a certain modus operandi.

Marcus doesn't believe a word what have we have heard. After we drive away he explains why he thinks Timbergreen is running an illegal racket.

MARCUS HARDTKE: It's basically timber laundering. They have a permit for the dam, to cut the reservoir. They are just running all over the mountains and they are paying people to bring them whatever has value - focusing of course on the most valuable stuff first.

A little further on we join the others at the spot where Wutty was killed. It's the site of another Timbergreen operation.

MONK (Translation): This symbolic representation of Wutty was made from the leaves and branches of the trees he loved so much when he was alive. We hope... that Chut Wutty stays in everyone's mind for ever. True?

CROWD (Translation): Yes!

Two people lost their lives that day, Chut Wutty and a Military Police man. Both were shot dead. Wutty had been escorting two journalists who were looking into illegal activity in the area. They had been taking photographs of a plant called yellow vine and the Military Police man wanted to seize their cameras. Human rights investigators say beyond that there are more questions than answers. They are still wondering how the Military Police man who apparently shot Wutty ended up dead himself.

MAN 2 (Translation): If he collapsed there the blood should have splattered around this area but there was no blood spatter here.

No wonder they are confused. From day 1 the Cambodian authorities have repeatedly changed their version of the story.

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL (Translation): These are the pictures of Chut Wutty dead in the car. In this one, we're checking where the bullets hit his body, and looking for evidence.

At first they claimed that Wutty may have fired the first shot. But then it was revealed that while he was armed his pistol's magazine was still full. Then they said that the Military Police man was so wracked by regret after shooting Wutty that he shot himself twice - once in the stomach and once in the chest.

After widespread ridicule of this scenario the government team then came up with their third and final version of events. They said a security officer at Timbergreen, Rann Boroth accidentally shot the Military Policeman, In Ratana, who had just shot Wutty.

GOVERNMENT OFFICIAL (Translation): We can conclude that Chut Wutty was shot by In Ratana, who shot at the car. The bullet ricocheted and struck Chut Wutty, killing him. Rann Boroth tried to wrestle... the gun from In Ratana in order to stop him from shooting again but the gun discharged and struck In Ratana, killing him.

OU VIRAK: We need to find those things out, okay.

Rann Boroth is now scheduled to face trial but human rights groups trying to conduct their own investigations are not impressed.

OU VIRAK: So now they try to put the blame on this guy, Rann Boroth. Was he armed?

MAN: No.

OU VIRAK: So the one guy they arrested as a prime suspect wasn't even - Wasn't armed. For God's sake, the investigators need to be investigated for cover-up, for basically trying to cover up the whole thing.

CROWD (Translation): That's right, that's right!

WOMAN (Translation): This land is our land.

CROWD (Translation): That's right, that's right!

WOMAN (Translation): We must all resolutely protect our land and forests.

CROWD (Translation): Protect! Protect!

Marcus is determined to find answers.

MARCUS HARDTKE: That's why I really came here - to find out what happened. What is so important over here that people die for it or kill for it?

After a short walk we discover a couple of Timbergreen sawmills. While the company may well have a permit to clear the area to be flooded by the dam we quickly uncover evidence that a lot of Rosewood passed through here. One man confirms that the company pays people to go further into the forest, outside of their concession area to fell valuable trees and bring them here.

MAN (Translation): Yes, they cut it and bring it here to sell.

MARCUS HARDTKE: (Translation): Where do they cut the trees?

MAN (Translation): They go into the forest.

He appears to be jealous that he is not able to make the big money that others are making from the timber they get from outside the concession area.

MARCUS HARDTKE: OK, so many different people come from all over?

MAN: Yeah.

MARCUS HARDTKE: People who don't work for the company, they just come and sell here?

MAN: Yeah.

MARCUS HARDTKE: It's a recurring business model. You get a licence, that gives you sort of a justification for being in the area and then you just go for whatever is profitable. And without oversight, this is what we're seeing. We have seen it with bloody every dam so far - every dam construction had this model.

But there is something else going on here. Everywhere we look there are stacks of a creeper called Yellow Vine and large soaking tanks for processing it.

MARCUS HARDTKE: Wutty was on the right track. His nose was correct. He found the right place.

Marcus has seen set-ups like this before while investigating drug labs on the Thai border.

MARCUS HARDTKE: There is a pretty well established link between Yellow Vine and drug production. Although the details are still a little bit unclear.

REPORTER: So what can you tell us about Yellow Vine? Is it legal or illegal? Huh?

OFFICER (Translation): The owner is not here so I don't know.

REPORTER: You have no idea? So why are they here? They have no idea about anything. Is it illegal or legal? No idea. Nobody has any clue.

The Cardamom Forest has already been plundered from Safrole oil which is extracted from the root bark of the Sassafras tree and used as the primary precursor in the manufacture of ecstasy or MDMA.

Dateline understands that Yellow Vine is not on the radar of drug enforcement agencies even though like Safrole, its active compound bears a striking similarity to ecstasy.

ANDREW MCDONALD, BIOLOGIST: This is Ecstasy here - this complex medicinal compound called Berberine - which is the main active ingredient of Yellow Vine. Half of the compound is ecstasy.

Andrew McDonald from the biology department at the University of Texas has been looking at the chemical make-up of Yellow Vine and says it could be used for drug production.

ANDREW MCDONALD: In my opinion it's likely and I base that on not so much the fact it has the back bone of ecstasy in it. I base that on the fact that this extraction effort and the plant product itself disappears. It's secretive and it's taking place under armed guard in the recesses of the forest

McDonald has a long connection with Cambodia. He knew Chut Wutty very well from field trips in the Cardamoms and they had spoken about Yellow Vine just one week before his death. Wutty was convinced of the drug link.

ANDREW MCDONALD: Knowing the circumstances of his death that he was killed not but a few minutes after taking pictures of an extraction tank in the middle of the Cardamom Mountains, if you connect the dots it's highly suspect. Where are the tonnes and tonnes of this plant extract going and who is buying it? There is a trail. They say follow the money. Who is doing it? What are they doing with it?

Yellow Vine apparently has a traditional uses a cure for stomach ache but Marcus believes the scale of the forest operation and the secrecy surrounding it is suspicious.

MARCUS HARDTKE: There's just too much money and high level interests in that stuff to be just a traditional medicine for a few cents.

Dateline put questions on illegal logging and Yellow Vine to Timbergreen but they said they were too busy to respond. According to newspaper reports in Cambodia they deny any involvement in any illegal activities or any connection with Wutty's death. Marcus however has made up his mind.

MARCUS HARDTKE: This is why he got killed, because they didn't want this to become public.

For the government, this case is closed. And a proper investigation into the issues that Wutty wanted to expose has been shut down. But with his death Wutty may have achieved as much as he did in life, throwing light on some of the dark practices going on all around this country.

MARK DAVIS: From the looks of it there is not going to be any justice for Chut Wutty. But you can read more about his life and some of the tributes that have been paid to him worldwide on our website.

Reporter/Camera
DAVID O'SHEA

Producer
GARRY MCNAB

Editors
MICAH MCGOWN
NICK O'BRIEN

Translations/Subtitling
SARETH SOUK

Original Music Composed by VICKI HANSEN

Additional footage provided by Allan Michaud and Global Witness

22nd May 2012