A Cambodian environmentalist and two forest rangers were fatally shot while on patrol in a protected area near the Vietnam border, officials have confirmed.
Thul Khna, 24, a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) officer, was killed along with Teurn Soknai, 37, an environment ministry ranger, and Sek Wathana, 34, a military police officer, while patrolling in the Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, Mondulkiri province, on January 30.
Two suspects have since been charged with premeditated murder over the shootings: Keut Veha and Phal Penh. Both are serving military officers.
Another suspect, Keut Veta, also a military officer, was charged with accomplice to a murder.
Police arrested three other suspects, who were charged with forestry-related crimes, according to Mao Pros, a provincial court spokesman.
“They both had a gun,” he said. “They waited by a road for about one hour, waiting to shoot those people.”
Penh’s confession was reportedly shown in a video posted to the pro-government website Freshnews, where he claimed that the environmentalists had been photographing illegal logging in the area.
Much of the illegal logging trade in the area has been linked to the military, who are often employed to protect the interests of companies engaged in illegal logging.
Penh said the officers had offered the environmentalists a bribe of about $220 not to report the incident, but the environmentalists had reported what they had seen to the local prosecutor.
However, Pros, the court spokesman, said there was no evidence of bribery being involved in the incident.
In a statement, WCS said the group was targeted as it was returning from the border after locating an illegal logging camp and confiscating chainsaws and motorbikes used to transport timber.
Chea Sam Ang, head of natural resources preservation at the environment ministry, said there was no evidence the victims had taken a bribe from illegal loggers of military officers. “There was no money with them,” he said.
“They fulfilled their work responsibly and correctly.”
Penh told police he had warned the environmentalists against traveling near the border, where he claimed he was worried the group could be targeted by Vietnamese troops.
“I told them from time to time the Vietnamese will make arrests or shoot, and that if there was a problem, I would be blamed since I guard the area.”
Ken Serey Rotha, WCS’s country director, defended Khna, saying he had not taken a bribe.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of our colleagues. In their honor, and to honor all those who day in and day out work to protect the forests and wildlife of Cambodia, we will continue to support our government and community partners, and to bring the murderers to justice,” he said.
WCS works closely with the government to conduct forest patrols of protected areas. In 2017, their officials carried out 52 patrols, spending more than 150 days in the forests, arresting seven offenders and issuing more than 50 cease and desist letters to illegal loggers and poachers.
Keo Seima Wildlife Sanctuary, situated in Kratie and Mondulkiri provinces, is home to over 60 flora and fauna species listed as threatened on the IUCN Red List.