'Blood Wood' Killings in Cambodia Deserve U.S. Rebuke

The grisly ax murder this month of a Cambodian journalist who was investigating illegal logging has generated welcome outrage and news coverage. Widespread condemnation of the murder, in which 42-year-old Hang Serei Odom was hacked to death and stuffed in the trunk of his car in a remote province, has come from politicians, environmentalists, and leading U.S. news outlets.

I have also weighed in for Reuters, because a Cambodian colleague and I came close to death when covering the scandal of "blood wood" for the Cambodia Daily this April. We were traveling in the majestic and threatened Cardamom mountains in southwest Cambodia with the country's pre-eminent forestry activist, Chut Wutty, when we stopped at an illegal logging site. Approached by menacing military police, we had our cameras stripped away and were prevented from leaving. Minutes later, Wutty was shot dead by one of the soldiers and we were threatened with the same fate. "Just kill them both," we heard them say.

Wutty's death, covered by every major media outlet and seen as a national tragedy, has spotlighted the systematic destruction of pristine forest in Cambodia and the risks faced by those trying to expose the plunder.

Odom's murder, for which a military police officer and his wife have been charged, has raised indignation over the country's corrupt land-stripping practices to a fever pitch. Many are asking why the U.S. isn't doing more to stop a local bloodbath with global ramifications.

A Wall Street Journal editorial posted yesterday pointed out that while increasing garment imports from Cambodia, "the Obama administration has remained largely silent" on the persecution and state-sponsored murders of land defenders. It chastised Hillary Clinton for keeping mum during a July visit to the country and called for international donors -- who float the post-genocide republic's annual budget -- to use that leverage to demand reforms.

Renowned environmental writer Andrew C. Revkin also noted the Cambodia scandal on his New York Times blog. He called the murders a "frustrating" step back for the country.

Mike Shanahan from the International Institute for Environment and Development wrote in a blog post that in an age of global interconnection and data sharing, journalists can do more to "connect the dots" between timber carnage in Cambodia and moneyed global interests.

"Blood spilt in -- for instance -- a tropical forest can often be connected now with notes deposited in a Western bank or luxury hardwoods bought in a high-street store in China or Chicago," he wrote.

He added: "When a journalist dies to tell a story, it becomes a story that deserves an audience like no other."

UNESCO head Irina Bokova also denounced the murder in a statement.

Although the Committee to Protect Journalists puts the number of murdered reporters in Cambodia at eight since 1992, local rights groups say at least ten journalists have been killed in about two decades. Reporters Without Borders said that Cambodian reporters are "frequently targeted by the people they try to expose," and ranked the post-genocide country 117th of 179 countries on it's 2011-2012 press freedom index.

It is heartening to see that when a reporter is killed in the forest, people hear about it. The same must go for the activists and others who risk their lives daily, like the Prey Long People's Network in one of last great ancient forests in Cambodia. The loss of Wutty removed a vital voice speaking up for powerless villagers and indigenous minorities.

The deforestation crisis in Cambodia is unique only because it is relatively new. While 130-foot trees in tropical jungles have been gutted for the last two decades in Cambodia, neighboring Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam began exporting illicit timber long before. In Cambodia, the forests may still have a chance -- if change takes root.

Mu Sochua, Cambodia's leading in-country opposition figure, commented in her blog that she hoped the issue would be on the agenda for an upcoming meeting of international donors and the Cambodian government.

Despite Cambodia's increasing reliance on Chinese money, the United States still carries weight there. But will President Obama exercise his power and address the deforestation crisis and this rash of killings at an upcoming Asean summit in Phnom Penh in November?

Activists have died trying to bring to light these issues and journalists in the field and behind desks have helped deliver them to a wide audience. But Obama could add his indignation at Cambodia's new killing fields.

UPDATE: Since the writing of this story, illegal logging has claimed three more lives in Cambodia. Over the weekend, a motorcycle carrying a family of three, a father, mother and their 18-year old daughter, was struck by a speeding military truck transporting illegal timber in Siem Reap province, immediately killing the family. The Cambodia Daily reported that three or four men wearing military uniforms fled the truck, a US donated camouflage vehicle full of first and second grade timber, following the collision. Just days later, in Ratanakkiri province---where a reporter who exposed illegal logging was hacked to death earlier this month--another journalist was beaten with a pistol by three men, one of whom was a former police officer, according to the Phnom Penh Post. Ek Sokunthy, who has written anti-logging stories involving high level police officials for a separate paper, has received at least three death threats from police and military police critical of his investigative reporting, the Post said.