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Rights groups demand end to Cambodia’s persecution of green activists

  • A court in Cambodia has charged three activists from the environmental NGO Mother Nature Cambodia after they documented waste dumping in a river near the Royal Palace.
  • It’s the latest instance of authorities cracking down on environmental activists in the country, after three other Mother Nature Cambodia staff were convicted in May for planning a peaceful protest against the backfilling of a lake.
  • Local and international rights groups have condemned the spate of arrests and called on the international and donor community to bring pressure to bear on the government.
  • There’s already been some pushback, with the U.S. government ending its funding of a forest conservation program, and the U.S. ambassador calling on Cambodian authorities to “be responsive to its citizens, not to silence them.”

Three young environmental activists in Cambodia face between five and 10 years in prison and fines of up to 10 million riels ($2,500) on charges of conspiracy and insulting the monarchy. The charges against the activists, associated with the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, are the latest in an ongoing crackdown by Cambodian authorities against environmental advocates.

Sun Ratha, 26 years old, and Ly Chandaravuth, 22, were arrested in Phnom Penh, the capital, while Yim Leanghy, 32, was arrested in Kandal province, on June 16. They were charged on June 20 at a court in Phnom Penh in connection with their work documenting the dumping of raw sewage effluent into the Tonle Sap River in the vicinity of the Royal Palace.

The Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) and 74 other local rights groups have condemned the move as part of the government’s “targeted and outrageous persecution” of activists. In a statement, the groups called on authorities to “stop imprisoning and start listening to our youth activists who are on the front line of documenting the risks Cambodia faces from natural resource exploitation and environmental degradation.”

The court charged Ratha and Chandaravuth with both conspiracy and lèse-majesté (insulting the monarchy) and Leanghy with conspiracy. A fourth activist, Seth Chhivlimeng, 25, who was arrested with Ratha and Chandavaruth, was released without charge. Mother Nature Cambodia’s Spanish founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported in 2015, was also charged with conspiracy in absentia.

“The Cambodian government has stepped up its campaign to silence activists peacefully advocating to protect the environment,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Foreign governments, the United Nations country team, and international donors should call on the Cambodian authorities to drop their absurd charges against the environmental activists and publicly condemn any further clampdown on peaceful activism.”

Mother Nature Cambodia activist Sun Ratha waves to her family as she is brought to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in June, 2021. Image from LICADHO via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0)

According to local media, an Interior Ministry spokesperson alleged that the authorities had evidence that Mother Nature Cambodia had used foreign funding to try to undermine the government. The evidence remains undisclosed.

The recent arrests follow earlier persecution of other Mother Nature Cambodia activists. On May 5, the Phnom Penh court convicted three environmental activists — Long Kunthea, 22, Phuon Keoraksmey, 19, and Thun Ratha, 29 — of incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order. The judge deemed the activists to be a serious threat to social stability and sentenced them to between 18 and 20 months in prison, and fined them 4 million riels ($1,000) each. All three activists had been detained since eight months prior to their May trial and they currently remain in detention at Prey Sar Prison.

Rights groups are calling on the Cambodian government to release them and other pretrial detainees who are not being held for violent offenses on the basis of the heightened risk of COVID-19 infection in state prisons.

The three had been campaigning peacefully to save Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tamok Lake from being filled in by authorities. They had planned a peaceful one-woman protest march, which was prevented from taking place by their detention. Long Kunthea had, with the help of Keoraksmey and Ratha, planned to walk from the temple of Wat Phnom to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion in Phnom Penh, where she hoped to discuss the risks associated with the lake’s infilling.

Following the activists’ sentencing in May 2021, Gonzalez-Davidson told Mongabay that Mother Nature Cambodia activists are used to being arbitrarily jailed and judicially harassed. “This has happened to us countless times since our inception in 2013, and the end result has so far always been pretty much the same: We grow stronger, more united, become smarter, and even more people want to join our movement.

“I do admit that we have never seen such a despotic level of repression as we have been seeing over the last couple of years, even state-sponsored terror one could call it, but this just makes the Hun Sen dictatorship even more unpopular and activates even more people into action,” he said.

“Cambodia’s highly politicized courts mean that the environmental activists charged have no chance of getting a fair trial,” HRW’s Robertson said. “Only international pressure on the Cambodian government holds out the possibility of saving these activists from unjust prison sentences.”

Family members of three young environmental activists who are facing charges of conspiracy and insulting the monarchy outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in June, 2021. Image from LICADHO via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0)

Amid the ongoing clampdown on activists, the environmental destruction that prompted their work continues unabated. And Cambodia’s lakes and waterways are not the only natural resources under threat. The country has lost more than 30% of its primary forest cover since the turn of the century, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland (UMD) visualized on Global Forest Watch. With vast swaths of the country earmarked for construction, the trend toward deforestation looks set to continue.

In a move that spotlights the Cambodian government’s disregard for environmental protection, the United States government announced on June 17 that it would halt funding for the Greening Prey Lang project, a flagship forest protection program that received more than $100 million from USAID. The U.S. Embassy cited among its reasons for the withdrawal the fact that Cambodia’s government was not doing enough to stop deforestation in protected areas.

“In addition, the government continues to silence and target local communities and their civil society partners who are justifiably concerned about the loss of their natural resources,” the embassy said in a statement. In March 2020 and early 2021, authorities arrested activists affiliated with the Prey Lang Community Network, and environmentalist and lawyer Ouch Leng, who had been documenting illegal logging and deforestation within the protected forest.

The U.S. funds are being redirected to civil society groups working on environmental protection. On the recent youth activist arrests, the U.S. ambassador to Cambodia, W. Patrick Murphy, said on social media that “Documenting pollution is a public service, not terrorism. We urge authorities to be responsive to its citizens, not to silence them.”