Cambodian Journalists Are Dying Trying to Save the Country's Forests
In Cambodia and across the remote forests of the world, a rising boom in the illegal sale of wood, land, and minerals has turned the environmental beat into a new kind of conflict journalism.
Photos by Claire Eggers
This piece was made possible by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
By the time his wife worked up the courage to ask him to stay, Taing Try was almost asleep. The two were lying together on a mattress beneath the mosquito nets in their one-room stilt house in the bottomlands of eastern Cambodia. Across the room, they could hear their young daughter turning in her sleep, the sound of their water buffalos breathing beneath the house, the lumber trucks speeding down National Highway 7 and carrying their clandestine cargo to Vietnam.
Taing, 49, was a journalist who covered the logging of Cambodia's forests, a black market much like the international arms or drug trades. Cheam Mom, his wife, had watched with increasing unease as he left time after time, heading out to range the woods with camera and cellphone, looking for caches of illegal logs and the loggers who felled them. That night, in mid October 2014, she finally found her voice.
"I said, 'Sweetie, I'm very concerned about what you're doing,'" she later remembered. "'The work you do—you don't carry a gun. You can't protect yourself. Those businessmen you write about do have money. They do have guns. If they get mad at you, what are you going to do?'"
In Cambodia and across the remote forests of the world, a rising boom in the illegal sale of wood, land, and minerals has turned the environmental beat into a new sort of conflict journalism.
Taing said he wasn't worried, and that she shouldn't be either. His job, he said, was just another job. He wasn't going to get close enough to anyone to "touch" him or her. Cheam kept talking. Quit reporting, she begged. Come home. Work with me in our rice field. Help raise our daughter. After a while, she looked over and saw that Taing was asleep. The next day, Cheam woke relieved and unburdened. She went to the fields filled with a strange sense of peace.
But Taing had not been strictly honest with her. He left the house that morning and drove east toward the Province of Kratie, on the border of what remained of Cambodia's eastern forests. He headed for a place awash in money from the illegal sale of land, gems, and wood, a place where dirty cops and soldiers ran shadowy, heavily armed logging networks. Out there, in the dark, something went wrong. Two days after Taing left home, local peasants found his body facedown in the muck of a logging road, a bullet in the back of his head.
Taing's death, while tragic, was not unique. In Cambodia and in remote forests elsewhere, a rising boom in the illegal sale of wood, land, and minerals has turned the environmental beat into a new sort of conflict journalism. Since 2005, 40 journalists around the world have died while reporting these stories, more than all of the journalists killed covering America's war in Afghanistan. The dead have overwhelmingly been local reporters, like Taing, covering illegal mining or logging. They are largely independent, poorly educated, untrained, and despised by their nations' Establishment Media. Reporting on a violent, corrupt frontier, they are never sure when they'll cross a line and end up dead. Their lives in their hands, they head into the woods.
Two weeks after Taing's death, I headed into the forests of Kratie with my translator, Sinary Sany. She was a tiny firecracker of a woman in her early 30s who spoke a sublime and singular English that forced me to work through a process of double interpretation—Khmer to Sinary's English, Sinary's English to mine—that gave all of the interviews we did a level of the surreal, as though I were reporting from underwater. She was a land activist who had worked as a journalist at the English-language Cambodia Daily. The prospect of her being a reporter had so terrified her mother that eventually she had taken a transfer to the paper's business department. "Were you threatened?" I asked when she told me this. "No," she said, shrugging. "They only beat me once. It was nothing."
If you head east on National Highway 7 away from Tbong Khmum, the village where Taing lived, and toward the forests where he died, you cross a land in the middle of a great transformation. It was October, but the weather was scorching. The sun beat down on peasants sucking water from irrigation canals to pour over their rice paddies, or bringing crops out on the backs of bicycles. Without the water buffalos and the conical hats, it could have been Faulkner's Mississippi: a region dotted with settlements of rough-cut wooden houses, where kids tended scrawny livestock on the banks of wide, lazy rivers. And, increasingly, foreign-owned plantations: As we ventured in the direction of Snuol, the highway passed rubber and cassava plantations so large that the lines of crops converged at the horizon.
A driver traveling down this same road 40 years ago—rattling over mud and stones—would have passed a very different scene. As recently as the early 1970s, three-quarters of Cambodia was covered in dense primary forest that stretched across most of Southeast Asia, from the mountains of Papua New Guinea to Burma. The country was still shaded then by a canopy of acacia and mahogany, broken here and there by the tops of rosewood trees.
But rosewood—like the rich soil it grows in—is valuable, part of a suite of tropical hardwoods known in Cambodia as "luxury wood," used to make fine furniture and musical instruments. As Cambodia's neighbors, like China and Vietnam, have risen into major regional or global powers, their demand for expensive hardwoods and farmland for plantation agriculture has skyrocketed. By ax and chainsaw, by motorbike and transport truck, by broad daylight and cover of night, Cambodia's forests have been disappearing, vanishing into clandestine sawmills and warehouses, speeding across the border into Vietnam. More than 85 percent of Cambodia's hardwoods, according to the environmental and human rights NGO Global Witness, ends up as four-poster beds and fancy end tables in China.
The origins of Cambodia's current boom in illegal lumber can be traced to 1978, when a Vietnamese army crossed the border and routed the armies of the Khmer Rouge, the hardcore Communist rebels who had spent the previous four years in a fantastically bloody attempt to re-create Cambodian society from top to bottom. The Khmer Rouge fell back from the Cambodian heartland to the forested mountains by the Thai border, a region rich in gems and rare lumber. As the Vietnamese exercised power in the capital of Phnom Penh through Hun Sen, a one-eyed Khmer Rouge defector, the remaining Khmer Rouge commanders retired to the mountains, where they grew fat off illegal mining and logging.
But in 1994, the UN brokered a peace treaty between the two sides. The new state, largely built and financed by the UN, was a model of both progressive legislation and environmental protection. In 2001, the UN even succeeded in pressuring the Cambodian government to declare a nationwide ban on all industrial logging. Peasants and forest communities could still forage for materials for houses and tools, but it would now be a criminal act to log Cambodian rosewood to decorate the homes of rich foreigners.
And yet since then, neither logging nor land clearing has stopped. The forests that covered 75 percent of Cambodia's surface in 1970 now cover barely half. Much of Cambodia's old-growth primary forest is irretrievably gone. National Highway 7 passes fewer trees and many rougher frontier farms. And in every village, over the stilt houses and the middens of plastic water bottles melting, gazes the beneficent face of Hun Sen, still head of the Cambodian People's Party and de facto dictator. Hun Sen's face, across Cambodia's frontiers, looks down on a logging trade that operates with a staggering openness. Drive the border roads at night, and you see tree trunks piled in the backs of Korean transport trucks. In what's left of the northern forests, blocks of ruby wood go to market beneath the legs of peasant boys on motorbikes. Chinese-made passenger vans speed between Cambodia's cities with rosewood hidden under passengers' seats.
The van driver who took us east, a fine-featured, soul-patched young Khmer man who worked the route between the capital and Taing's hometown, explained the way this black market worked. He had driven the route for years when a friend passed him on to a businessman—a politician, the driver thought—who needed to move wood from the eastern forests down to his warehouses in Phnom Penh. For two years, the driver ran logs through a gauntlet of forestry police.
"How was the money?" I asked. He grimaced. Each forestry cop, looking over his load, demanded a bribe. "I eventually realized that I was just making enough money to pay my gas," he explained. So he quit: He gave the "businessman" to a friend and stopped taking his calls. Asked if he had ever been scared of being arrested by honest cops, he sniffed. "No one in Cambodia," he said, "wants to stop the logging."
But some do, or say they do. At the end of the spine-rattling ride from Tbong Khmum, we arrived in Snuol, a bustling district capital 12 miles from the Vietnamese border. Snuol is the last major town before Highway 7 crosses into Vietnam, Cambodia's richer, more powerful neighbor, and Snuol's main trading partner. Chinese toys, Vietnamese tools, and Cambodian textiles filled the town's markets. People dodged tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis as they picked their way from restaurant to restaurant along the main drag. The rest of the streets, packed with red muck and pockmarked with puddles, turned shoes and pant cuffs the color of rust.
Snuol was also the last town that Taing had visited before he died. The place has become a hotbed of environmental reporting, as a group of self-taught and deeply compromised journalists wage a lonely war against the logging campaign. Outside the market, a middle-aged man in dusty clothes rode up on a motorbike, a weathered briefcase clutched between his feet. He was Sa Piseth, a close friend and reporting partner of Taing's. Sa rode shotgun on Taing's last expedition, which made him the last person to have seen Taing alive, aside from whoever was responsible for his death. As a couple of soldiers in camouflage eyed him, he stepped down from his bike and ushered us toward his house.
Sa was a rangy, baby-faced 42-year-old in dusty business clothes. He had a gold tooth that flashed when he smiled, which was often, and lived in a well-kept split-level town house, behind which one often heard the sounds of dogs fighting. Sa rummaged around and pulled out a stack of Khmer-language broadsheets on the bed. Their title read Klommel ("watchdog"). On the yellowing paper, he pointed at grainy photos showing logs stacked on roadsides or in the backs of trucks. Sa shuffled through them while his son sat on his lap, babbling happily at us, pointing at pictures. "He wants you to know," my translator said of the little boy, "that this truck is full of trees, not vegetables."
There were more signs of the land conversion: Sa showed me photos of villages burning in advance of new agribusiness developments. He didn't have any recent pictures, he said, apologizing, because his camera had been smashed by police while he was covering a land conflict: the burning of a village in the Province of Kampong Cham, ordered by the provincial vice president. The police had tried to arrest him, he said, but the villagers had protected him, so eventually the cops let him go under the promise that he wouldn't write about it. He smiled. He hadn't kept his promise.
Like Taing, Sa was a veteran of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. In fact, he had gotten his start in journalism as a radio propagandist—a "soldier journalist"—in the army in the early 1990s, as the war against the Khmer Rouge was winding down. He produced radio spots to be broadcast to the rebel camps, urging their fighters to come down from the hills and go back home. He left the army in disgrace after an argument with his commander—a recurring theme in Sa's stories seemed to be how much smarter he felt he was than everyone around him and how much that annoyed them—and went back to civilian life. Like many rural Cambodians, Sa watched Phnom Penh become the sort of rapacious kleptocracy that had originally fueled the war. Though Hun Sen's UN-backed government established a fine network of progressive laws, it soon became clear that these were little more than a mask for violence and hypocrisy at the highest levels.
Even when it doesn't result in prison time, a reliance on hustling to pay the bills also leads journalists to put themselves in dangerous situations for very little money.
Take Cambodia's 2001 logging ban, for example. The same year the Hun Sen government banned logging, it created "economic land concessions," or ELCs, which leased land for rubber, cassava, or palm-oil plantations. ELCs granted leaseholders the right to sell any wood they cleared, which meant that they almost immediately became de facto logging concessions, often in primary forest that had been fraudulently certified as wasteland. When the government finally prohibited ELCs under international pressure, it simultaneously created a loophole that obviated the entire ban. And the loggers themselves, Global Witness found in a 2006 investigation, were the very people whose job it was to protect the forests: the police and the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces. In fact, cutting down valuable trees and moving them across the border was one of the army's main jobs. In 2005, Yash Ghai, then the UN's special rapporteur on Cambodia, looked over the nation's government and delivered a damning verdict: that the country's lawlessness was not a matter of state weakness or accident but intentional policy. "The deliberate rejection of the concept of a state governed by the rule of law has been central to [Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party's] hold on power."
Sa observed all this. And as the lands and forests of the east disappeared to loggers and encroaching plantations, he threw his support behind the political opposition of Sam Rainsy and the Cambodian National Rescue Party. But he felt this was not enough. Like many other Cambodian journalists who spoke with me, he said that it did no good to warn the authorities about illegal logging or land grabs in his area—not, after all, if they were in on it.
And then, in 2008, he hit on a solution: He would let the world know. He didn't have a gun, he said, "but I have the news. I can fight with the news." He began to hang out with a local crowd of journalists, and he would drive the backwoods with a camera and Chinese cellphone, taking pictures of land clearings. "In those days," he explained through Sinary, "most of my articles were about land grabbing. I'd criticize how it works for the powerful, who pressure people with no power. They'd present a threat to the people and take their land." But then, around 2012, he met Taing in Snuol and fell under the spell of the older, more serious man. Taing was quiet, except when drunk, when he'd rail about the loss of Cambodia's forests. And when Taing said he'd do something, Sa said, he did it.
Sa, Taing, and their fellow journalists worked as freelancers or stringers. They made a living by selling stories or tips to the regional or national Khmer dailies. They also self-published and wrote for one another's newspapers. Both were members of a loose reporting collective called Pride of the Khmer, run by a swaggering former daily reporter named Chea Lyhieng. "Other people run away from danger," Chea bragged over a chili mango and sweating glasses of iced coffee in a cafe by National Highway 7. "We run toward it." He had gotten sick of his daily newspaper, which didn't let him cover the stories he wanted, so he went freelance. Pride of the Khmer took donations from its journalists to print limited runs of broadsheets to end up on local officials' desks: a means of saying, "We are watching."
Chea and Sa's was not a media like the New York Times, or even the English-language professional Phnom Penh dailies like Cambodia Daily News or Phnom Penh Post. Cambodian media is roughly divided between the capital press—English, Khmer, government, opposition—and the anarchic network of "upcountry" journalists like Sa and Taing. Despite their camera phones, the rural journalists seem in some ways like a throwback to the early American press—or the zine movement—in which anyone with the urge and some printing money could put out his or her own newspaper.
There are about 300 newspapers registered with the government, according to the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies. The vast majority of these are published irregularly: Many are what Cambodians call "ghost newspapers," which publish infrequently or not at all. Many journalists, including Taing, were barely literate: When they worked as stringers for larger entities like Radio Free Asia or the Cambodia Democracy Foundation, they'd submit their stories as SMS tips or cameraphone pictures. While unorthodox, these reporters were at one end of a pipeline that can deliver real results. Though the laws are widely ignored and loggers are almost never arrested for logging, said Mathieu Pellerin of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, that doesn't mean loggers want publicity. "If it gets published," he said, "maybe he gets in trouble with his superiors. Maybe they knew he was logging but not how much he was taking—or maybe he was taking from someone he wasn't supposed to." There are consequences too, he said, to public embarrassment. "Maybe if he gets named as an illegal logger, his daughter doesn't get to go study abroad in Australia."
Throughout the developing world, environmental journalists, using the same methods as Sa and Taing, are confronting similar problems, issues that can be traced at least in part to the early 1990s, when the tropical world was caught up in a pair of revolutions. The first was political. Beginning in the early 1980s, dictatorships fell like dominos: Brazil, 1985; Guatemala, 1985; the Philippines, 1986; Paraguay, 1989; Thailand, 1992; Cambodia, 1994; Indonesia, 1998. Information ministries were abolished and licensing restrictions trashed. As newly democratic countries fought over things like the role of the judiciary or how to set up a congress, papers were launching and folding, reveling in their newfound freedom to criticize the powers that be.
One subject of their criticism, as it happened, was the second revolution: a vast transformation in land use. Virtually all of the countries listed above saw a spike in development and its dark sides: deforestation, communities chased off their land to make way for mining developments or agribusiness plantations. Over the past 20 years, this has played out in diverse yet parallel ways across the globe: Colombian paramilitaries or Malay oligarchs seizing peasant land for palm-oil plantations; Paraguayan narcos clearing forests for cattle and soy; Chinese-funded nickel mines polluting farmland in the rural Philippines.
In these new democracies—driven by internal divisions, without strong judiciaries or rule of law—local press can be, as some journalism advocates describe it, "a court of last resort." Though Cambodia's democracy is deeply flawed, it is still susceptible to both bad press and the accompanying pressure from the international community, which still pays half the country's budget—a fact that gives it great sway in Cambodia, when it can be bothered to use it. In 2011, for example, local press led to public outcry and protests over the eviction of thousands of peasants from a lake near Phnom Penh in order to build a Chinese-funded luxury housing complex—a project owned by a Cambodian senator with close links to Hun Sen. The protests—and the ensuing violent police crackdown—led the World Bank to freeze all new loans to the country for years.
But power, in the absence of the protection offered by true rule of law, is a dangerous thing to have. Here is just a sampling of the death count of environmental journalists in the two years before Taing's final ride: Suon Chan, a Cambodian covering illegal fishing, beaten to death; Mikhail Beketov, a Russian journalist who publicized the destruction of the Khimki Forest for the Moscow–St. Petersburg Freeway, died of injuries sustained years earlier after unknown men crushed his skull, broke his legs, and left him mangled in his front yard; Chandrika Rai, an Indian reporter who covered illegal coal mining, beaten to death in his home along with his family.
To keep themselves safe, the Snuol journalists said, they had to hustle, confronting the loggers with a mix of double-dealing and deception. Sometimes, said Sa, they would find themselves alone, deep in the woods, looking for logging camps, surrounded by armed men—soldiers—in the process of logging. When that happened, Sa said, there was a way of doing things: The soldiers would offer them money, maybe $10, a little more than they could make for an article. The deal, Sa said, was obvious: Take the money, and keep your mouth shut. This was the unspoken compact of the woods, he and others told me: A journalist could be tolerated if he or she was discrete enough to take the money and walk away.
"They don't always say anything [when they offer money], but they have guns," Sa said. "We don't take the money, what happens?" Taing, he said, often found himself lobbied by businessmen and soldiers not to publish, so he had a workaround: He would accept the bribe, and he would keep his promise not to publish the story. Instead, to maintain deniability, he would pass it to Sa, or another fellow journalist. Sa showed us a few stories that, he said, had originally been Taing's but had gone out under another journalist's byline. "Army Chief Gian N Jiaam Destroys the Forest," the headline read.
These journalists also said they take bribes because they simply need the money. Unlike a salaried reporter in Phnom Penh or Washington, DC, these men and women were largely working-class, poorly educated, and unsupported. Taing's wife, after all, worked in a rice farm while he was reporting. "Sometimes I have to take money from my wife to do my work," one ex-journalist had told me, explaining why he'd quit, a complaint that should resonate with freelancers everywhere. "Let us make even $500 a month," another Snuol journalist said, "and we will work 20 hours every day and not take money from anyone."
But accepting bribes, they emphasized, comes with dangers. A journalist who accepts a bribe—even under duress—leaves himself open to later charges of extortion, which means that the offer of a bribe functions as both carrot and stick. The journalist, once bought, is presumed to remain bought. According to Chea, the head of Pride of the Khmer, after Taing had reported some villagers to the forest ministry for logging, the villagers reported him for extorting "about 10,000 or 20,000 riel," or about $2 to $5, for which he spent six months in prison.
And even when it doesn't result in prison time, a reliance on hustling to pay the bills also leads journalists to put themselves in dangerous situations for very little money. One journalist, Coy Saveuth, lived a few miles from Snuol, up the muddy logging road where Taing, Sa, and the others would drive looking for the shipment of logs. That road was a major artery, journalists said, for the trade between the district chief of police, Chhonn Khoeun, and a police chief from the neighboring province, who had done well enough off the trade to buy himself a sleek black Lexus SUV.
Coy was a wiry man with a weathered brown face. When I met him, he wore dusty old slacks and a powder-blue work shirt. He lived deep in Chhonn's territory, barely scraping by within sight of the imposing two-story wooden warehouse where Chhonn was said to store shipments of valuable illegal logs in the cutting season.
"We need to eat; we need to pay for gas," he explained. So one day he decided to take his cut. He and some friends had gone into the woods where Chief Chhonn had a cache of logs. They took pictures of it on their cellphones and went to ask him for money. Chhonn, Coy said, asked if $10 would be enough to make them go away. Coy held out for $15. Chhonn turned to his brother, there in the office with them. "He said, 'Maybe we should kill a few of them who are working here on reporting.'" Coy got mad and ratted Chhonn out to the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, whom he led out on motorcycles to the stash of logs, Chhonn's angry brother riding alongside. At the log cache, the brother pulled a gun on Coy in front of the soldiers who had been sent to seize the lumber.
"I said, 'If you kill me, you better do it in one shot, or you're going to be in trouble,'" Coy recalled. In the end, the brother backed down, and according to Coy, in what struck me as an incredible touch, Chhonn had offered to put him on retainer—$50 a month to keep his mouth shut. "He said, 'Forgive my brother, he gets a little crazy,'" Coy said. "'Come work for me.' But I figured if I take that money, I'm working for him, and I have to protect him. So I told him no. Now when the goods arrive, he'll call and negotiate."
Sinary, my fixer, managed to talk to Chhonn only briefly, but his take on the morals of the journalists suggested that he saw them as breaking faith. "They have very bad behavior," Chhonn complained about Sa, Taing, and company. "We used to treat one another as godbrothers, and now they turn on me. To my mind, those journalists only work for their own interests; they just do it as a business."
He's not the only one who feels that way. In the capital, especially among the professional English-language journalists and Cambodian law enforcement, it is more or less dogma that the economy of the Cambodian forests has now become so full of violence and black money that everyone who works there—from loggers to cops to park guards to journalists—has been corrupted. Many believe that rural journalists like Sa and Taing are little more than extortionists, using their journalistic credentials as an excuse to blackmail loggers. The Cambodia Daily publishes frequent pieces on journalists arrested for extortion, and it is widely accepted among capital literati that the only reason that rural journalists bother to register "ghost newspapers" at all is to have a credible reason why someone should pay him or her not to publish.
Ironically, according to Marcus Hardtke, a German forestry expert who has spent decades in the country, one of the few checks on illegal logging is journalism—legitimate and corrupt alike. Reporting on the timber tycoon Try Pheap by the Phnom Penh Post and others has forced the Cambodian government to cancel a few dirty contracts. Hardtke would write later that extortion by Khmer-language journalists like Coy has reached such epidemic levels that it has actually begun to deter logging. Hardtke pointed to a plan to move a large shipment of timber from Kratie to the border, which caused "a pilgrimage of government officials and, reportedly, more than 50 journalists, all trying to get in on the deal. In the end, the transport didn't happen." Extortion of logging truck drivers by reporters has reached such a level that the Cambodian government has begun cracking down on extortionate journalists while turning a blind eye to the timber transporters themselves.
According to Bob Dietz, who monitors Asia for the Committee to Protect Journalists, which keeps a record of reporters killed in the line of duty, a corrupt journalist can still do good. "The dirty secret is that journalism practice in a lot of developing countries is abysmal," Dietz said. And, as Dietz and other international-journalism advocates told me, bribes can function around the world as part of the same spectrum of press coercion as arrests, beatings, and murders: a way to keep journalists quiet and wedded to the power structure. If journalists refuse to be bought off, Dietz added, "then another recourse is to shoot them."
The journalists in Snuol, however, thought they had developed a system that would keep them safe. Before their last mission, Sa explained, Taing had come to him with an idea. Taing cultivated a wide network of contacts around eastern Cambodia, paying for tips on illegal logging shipments with $2 cellphone cards. Down that logging road, his sources had said, was supposed to come a shipment of logs—23 oxcarts' worth. One journalist estimated this as more than $200,000 of wood, part of a dirty deal between Chhonn and the police chief on the other side of the river. On the night of October 13, 2014, after gathering a group of fellow journalists for safety, they drove into the woods to find it.
It was an ill-starred trip from the start. Taing and Sa rode together in Taing's car. They turned down the logging road that led to the ferry crossing at the Preak Chhlong River, passing the rice farming village and the tile-roofed storehouse where Chhonn and his brother kept their wood. Things began to go wrong almost immediately. The road was in dismal condition. Recent rains had turned it into a morass of muck and potholes. The villagers in the logging community on the far side of the river were menacing. The drunken ferryman refused them service.
And then across the river, Taing's phone rang. It was Chhonn. Sa listened to Taing talk—listened to Chhonn say that it was his wood they were after and demand that they get back now. Back in his own car on the other side of the river, Chea got the same warning, with a chilling postscript. "He said, 'I've warned you, now. That's my good deed. I'm not responsible for what happens if you stay.'"
By the time they got back across the river on another ferry, it was dark, with just enough of a moon to see by. They drove back to the small village where Coy, the journalist who had previously made a deal with Chhonn, lived in a local general store. When they pulled over to confer about what to do next, there was Coy. He was talking on his phone—to Chhonn. He looked at the journalists and rattled off their names into the phone.
That settled it. The journalists decided to head back. Taing's car brought up the rear. He drove carelessly, Sa said, making call after call on his cell, talking excitedly about the conversation with Chhonn, about how they now knew whose wood it was. Distracted, Taing drove the car into one of the deep potholes in the road and got stuck. The other cars continued on without them, their taillights disappearing in the dark.
As Sa and Taing struggled to free the vehicle, they saw headlights approaching. Taing stepped out to ask for help, but the car didn't stop; and in the glare of the headlights, Sa saw a black Lexus, an LX 470 SUV, with the windows open. Sa could just make out the men inside. "They looked very angry at us," he said. "Taing Try said the car belonged to the chief of police across the river. I don't know how he knew that. But everyone knew one another there. They were famous for shooting and killing, and he was famous for reporting on luxury wood."
Sa didn't want to stay there. He tried to get Taing to come with him, but Taing wouldn't leave his car. Taing asked Sa to go to the nearest village and get help. Sa refused. "I told him that I'll check and see if anyone is there. But if I don't get back, get your hammock out of the trunk and sleep in the shed by the side of the road." Telling the story, he turned to Sinary. "I really [thought] he [would be] OK out there." Around midnight, Sa walked into the village where he'd left his motorbike. He got into town just in time to see the black Lexus heading toward Taing.
As he sat in his car, Taing was calling the other journalists, asking them to come tow him out of the mud, but they wouldn't do it. "He calls me just after midnight," said Chea, "but I tell him I'm almost home, and I'm not coming back. And then he said that he saw a truck with the wood about 30 yards from him. And then he turned off his phone. At about 5:30 AM, I got a call from Chhonn... that Taing Try got shot in the head."
There were no two ways about it: Taing's friends had left him in the woods to die. When my translator asked Sa if he regretted leaving, he was pensive. "If I was with him, I am not sure what's going to happen—if he is still alive, or we both get killed." He really had believed, he emphasized, that they were safe. "I wasn't afraid then." Recounting the story in his house in Snuol, he teared up. "Now, thinking back, I am so afraid."
The morning after Taing's death, provincial homicide police found the Lexus flipped over a little ways down the road from Taing's corpse. They arrested Ben Hieng, police chief from across the river, as well as a military policeman and a soldier. According to news accounts, all three confessed: They said they had been drinking all night, had run into Taing early in the morning, and there had been an altercation. When Sinary called Py Khum Pao, a Kratie homicide detective, he refused to speculate on whether Taing was killed for reporting on timber. "I do not know if the suspects are timber traders or not. On that day, they were driving in the area, and they did not have any business being there."
The journalists, of course, say that it was precisely business that Ben and Chhonn had going on that night. Sinary pressed Detective Py on whether the murder had been related to Taing's work. Perhaps, he said, it had been a personal matter that had brought them together on that road. "Maybe the victim and the suspects know one another before. The area was so quiet and dangerous during the night—why would the victim want to go there, and why wasn't he scared of any robber?" Was it possible, Sinary pressed, that Taing had threatened to report the three for logging? Py wouldn't play that game. "As the victim was killed, we cannot confirm this." Dead men, in other words, tell no tales.
Two weeks after his death, I rode with the journalists to check out the scene of the crime. We drove down the logging track, past a pile of ruby logs loaded into the back of a van, to the ferry crossing. All the way, the journalists complained about how it didn't matter what they did: The authorities themselves were too interested in harvesting wood to want to stop anyone else. And yet there was a strange ecstasy in their stories. "We're like a barb in the eyes of the authorities and the businessmen," said Chea. Coy, the extortionist, was even more emphatic. "I love [journalism] for my ideals," he said. "If someone is logging illegally, we'll report on them, and we don't care how powerful or important they are." And at that moment, beside the river, the adrenaline coursing through my own veins, I could see the joy on Coy's face as he recounted the time he had faced down the district's top gunman. Perhaps that was what it came down to for them: Like deep-sea fishing in Alaska or logging itself in the Pacific Northwest, the rural Cambodian logging beat is the kind of job that seduces men, that brings you to life precisely because it may kill you. That, perhaps, and because in a society as unequal as rural Cambodia's, it gave men like Sa and Coy a way to have the warlords take them seriously.
Out there by the river, Coy's phone rang. Chhonn. We all froze, in the manner of monkeys who have seen a tiger, as Coy argued in Khmer, a strange light in his eyes. At last he spat something into the phone and hung up. "He's threatening me," he said. He walked down to the Preak Chhlong and dipped his feet in the muddy water. "But if I'm going to die one day like Taing Try," he said, "I'd be proud of myself and what I'm doing as a journalist here. I'd be famous outside my country." He saddled up his motorbike, and we headed back.
As we neared the road, splashing through the mud puddles, the van full of logs closed in behind us. For a sickening second, I thought it would run us off the narrow logging road, but it swerved wide of us and turned right at the highway, heading toward Vietnam. We turned the other way, en route to Snuol. On the other side of the highway, I watched a skinny dog trying to time a dash to the other side. He bet wrong, sprinting directly under the wheels of a big transport truck heading down one of the lanes. I watched as he disappeared under the truck, turning over and over. And then the truck was gone, and he was up and running, yelping, for the cover of the trees.