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Five Asian environmental activists killed for defending land and natural resources against exploitation

In the week NGO Global Witness reported the killing of 207 environmental defenders worldwide in 2017, we look at five of the most shocking recent cases in East Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 3:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2018, 3:38pm

On Tuesday, NGO Global Witness released a report documenting the killing of 207 environmental and land rights activists worldwide in 2017. While South America was the most dangerous continent, with 57 killings recorded in Brazil alone last year, Asia was not far behind. In the Philippines there were 48 deaths.

Such deaths are not new. We look back at five of the most egregious cases in Asia in recent years.

Chut Wutty, aged 40, Cambodia, 2012

Chut Wutty founded and managed the National Resource Protection Group (NRPG), an association that investigated illegal logging in Cambodia. In 2003 Chut Wutty was named deputy director of Global Witness, an international cooperative investigating and reporting on illegal smuggling of natural resources worldwide; in Cambodia, it looked into the role senior government officials played in the smuggling of timber.

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Chut Wutty was shot dead in 2012, when accompanying a group of journalists from The Cambodia Daily, a national English newspaper which conducted extensive investigations of the illegal timber trade in the country’s Koh Kong province. An official report said Chut Wutty had been killed by a military police officer who was himself killed by a ricocheting bullet. Doubts about the circumstances of his death remain.

In 2014, then-US President Barack Obama praised Chut Wutty’s achievements and courage. In 2015, a documentary film, I am Chut Wutty, was released by a fellow environmental activist, Fran Lambrick. The film was banned by the Cambodian authorities.

Indra Pelani, 22, Indonesia, 2015

Indra Pelani was a young Indonesian rice farmer from Lubuk Mandarsah in Jambi province, eastern Sumatra. He spoke up for the rights of tenant farmers, whose livelihoods were threatened when multinational companies started acquiring land from local landlords.

On his way to a rice harvest festival Pelani and a friend were confronted by security guards from Asia Pulp & Paper, a Chinese-Indonesian company producing paper products ranging from stationery to tissue in the heavily forested region. Pelani’s friend went to seek help, but the following day the activist was found dead, his hands and feet bound.

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Pelani’s death drew international attention – 25 NGOs, including Greenpeace, called for the local government and the company to render justice to Pelani’s family. Greenpeace suspended its work with the company on corporate social responsibility. Asia Pulp & Paper later offered an apology for Pelani’s killing.

Bill Kayong, 43, Malaysia, 2016

Bill Kayong was a Malaysian environmentalist and social advocate. Kayong fought for the preservation of native forest land and spoke out about the environmental impact of oil palm cultivation in the Malaysian state of Sarawak in northwest Borneo, where rainforest was being cleared for oil palm plantations.

Kayong was shot dead in his car while stopped at a traffic light in Jalan Miri-Bintulu, a small town in Sarawak. A businessman with close links to oil companies, and two others, were charged in connection with his death, but later released due to a lack of evidence; another man is still on trial.

Ruben Arzaga, 49, Philippines, 2017

Ruben Arzaga was a village chief near El Nido in Palawan province, Philippines. Captain Ruben – as he was known locally – was the chairman of the El Nido Law Enforcement Council and a member of the management board of the El Nido-Taytay Managed Resource Protected Area, a committee in charge of protecting the Unesco-listed area.

The father-of-five often took part in patrols against illegal logging. In September last year, Arzaga was shot dead. Two suspects were arrested and charged with his death, which caused a furore in the area and made national headlines. The country’s environment ministry granted his children free education and the local government gave his family PhP200,000 (US$3,750).

Saw O Moo, 43, Myanmar, 2018

Saw O Moo was part of the Karen ethnic minority in Karen state, Myanmar. A member of the Karen Environmental and Social Action network, Moo was fighting for the preservation of the region’s forests and advocating the building of a “peace park”.

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He was shot dead by soldiers who accused him of being a member of the Karen National Liberation Army, an armed group seeking autonomy for the Karen.