Phnom Penh Noir, an anthology of short crime fiction, was one of my favourite reads of 2012, and ‘Dark Truths’ by Bopha Porn was one of my favourite stories. I was amazed to read this brave young writer’s real story in a recent blog post by Christopher G Moore, reproduced here with kind permission of the author.
Being an investigative journalists in Southeast Asia is like the person walking point into a jungle filled with booby-traps, snipers and ambushes. It takes a very special person to volunteer for walking point.
Bopha Phorn is such a journalist.
She is a reporter for the Cambodian Daily. She is also a very brave journalist. Recognition of that bravery came this week with the announcement by the International Women’s Media Foundation of 2013 Courage in Journalism Awards. Three awards were given for courage to three women from around the world. Bopha Porn was one of the three. She is the first woman in Cambodia to receive this award.
The citation that comes with the award reads:
“In [April] 2012, Phorn narrowly escaped with her life when the vehicle in which she was traveling came under heavy fire. Phorn was investigating claims of illegal logging in a protected area of the Cambodian jungle with another journalist and an environmental activist when gunmen with AK-47s sprayed the car with shots. The activist, Chut Wutty, was killed. Phorn’s reporting on land and environmental issues, as well as her stories about criminal activity and human rights abuses, have made her the target of other life-threatening attacks.”
I had an appointment with Bopha in Phnom Penh in April 2012. I arrived a day after Chut Wutty had been killed. I didn’t know at that time the circumstances of his death or that Bopha had been next to Chut Wutty when he was killed. We were meeting to go over final edits of her short story, Dark Truths, for the anthology Phnom Penh Noir.
When I rang her, Bopha said she couldn’t make the meeting. She wasn’t in Phnom Penh. She asked if I could meet her where she was staying. I asked where she was, and she replied, “Near the Vietnamese border.” Then she told me the entire story and how she was concerned that returning to Phnom Penh might be risky as she’d witnessed the killing of Chut Wutty, who was attempting to expose illegal logging.
In this part of the world, where illegal logging is often linked to government officials, witnesses to the murder of environmentalists, human rights activists, and others seeking to expose official wrongdoing are danger. Bopha was absolutely right to find a temporary shelter away from officials who might seek to clean up the loose ends.
We talked several times that day. Twenty-four hours later, she was back in Phnom Penh. She couldn’t stay away from her job at The Cambodian Daily. Hiding out wasn’t in her nature. The news of Chut Wutty’s murder had gone out on the wires. It was international news.
Following an extrajudicial killing, officials in this part of the world don’t normally issue an order to kill a journalist who witnessed the murder once the eyes of an international audience are watching. If that possibility isn’t open, they arrange for the death of the soldier responsible.
In this case, the military police officer, Rattana, age 32, who killed Chut Wutty, and in that split second after pulling the trigger, was persuaded not to kill Bopha and another companion, Canadian Oesia Plohii. A day later Rattana was found dead. The military police officer conveniently committed suicide. The press questioned how Rattana could have shot himself first in the stomach and then in the chest.
Bopha Phorn has continued her investigative reporting from her base at the Cambodian Daily in Phnom Penh. Her courage makes her a role model for journalists throughout Southeast Asia. Reporters find themselves in situations where powerful vested interest with impunity from the law intimidate, bribe, or threaten the most brave of them. No one is ever paid enough money as a journalist to take a bullet for justice, freedom and fairness.
For someone like Bopha Phorn, it has never been about the money. It has been about exposing those who have accumulated wealth at the expense of their nation, murdered others to increase that wealth, and destroy the natural resources along the way. Asia needs heroes in this struggle.
I can’t think of a better one than Bopha Phorn.