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Cambodia bars green activists from traveling to accept international award

Ly Chandaravuth (right) with other activists. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

  • Three Cambodian environmental activists have been barred from leaving the country to accept an award in Sweden, prompting criticism of the government.
  • Long Kunthea, Phun Keo Reaksmey and Thun Ratha are with the group Mother Nature Cambodia, which last month was named a winner of the Right Livelihood award for its “relentless” activism against environmental destruction in the country.
  • The three are currently under court supervision following early release from jail in a case related to their activism, which means they can’t travel abroad.
  • Mother Nature Cambodia’s founder says the government has put itself in a “lose-lose situation” by barring them, as the incident has both garnered international scrutiny and revealed the shrinking space for civil society in Cambodia.

PHNOM PENH — A court in Cambodia has denied the requests of three activists from environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia to travel to Sweden to accept an international award.

In a letter published Oct. 2 by Phnom Penh Municipal Court and posted publicly to Mother Nature Cambodia’s Facebook page, decrees the travel of the three activists to receive the award “unnecessary,” in the words of prosecutor Chroeng Khmao.

The Cambodian activist group was on Sept. 28 recognized as a laureate of the Right Livelihood award, often termed the “Alternative Nobel,” for its “relentless” environmental activism in the shrinking civil space of Cambodia. Three of the Mother Nature Cambodia activists invited to accept the award — Long Kunthea, Phun Keo Reaksmey and Thun Ratha — were barred from international travel while on parole for charges related to their environmental activism. They had petitioned for an exception, which the court turned down in its letter.

Mother Nature Cambodia subsequently posted photos of Khmao dressed in the white uniform of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, questioning the court’s independence and suggesting that the decision to ban its members from going to Stockholm was political.

Prosecutor Chroeng Khmao in full Cambodian People’s Party uniform, and the letter issued by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court denying the activists' request for travel.
Prosecutor Chroeng Khmao in full Cambodian People’s Party uniform, and the letter issued by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court denying the activists’ request for travel. Images courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia.

Khmao could not be reached for comment, while Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Y Rin hung up the phone upon learning a journalist was calling him, and then did not respond to questions sent by Mongabay via messages.

“While we are saddened by this news, we are proud of the work undertaken by Mother Nature Cambodia in the face of adversity,” Right Livelihood said in a statement.

The Stockholm-headquartered NGO vowed to stand in solidarity with Mother Nature Cambodia and called on the Cambodian government to reconsider its decision.

“Regardless of the court’s decision, we will honor and celebrate Mother Nature Cambodia at the Award Presentation on [Nov.] 29 in Stockholm,” the statement read. “Together, we can ensure that their efforts to protect our environment and promote justice are acknowledged as they rightfully deserve.”

Representatives of Right Livelihood declined to answer specific questions, deferring to the publicly available statement online, but activists with Mother Nature Cambodia were vocal about the government’s decision.

“The decision by the prosecutor reflects the barbarity and how uncivilized the Cambodian government is,” said Ly Chandaravuth, an environmental activist with the group. “It shows that the court is not independent and should not be trusted.”

He reiterated that the prosecutor’s known association with the ruling party calls into question the notion that Cambodia’s judiciary is independent; Chandaravuth himself noted that he is free to travel to Sweden for the award ceremony.

Of the three activists barred from leaving the country by the court, Reaksmey and Kunthea were each sentenced to 14 months in jail by Cambodia’s Supreme Court, while Ratha received an 18-month sentence. All were released in November 2021, six months before they completed their sentences.

“The remaining jail term was changed to court supervision for three years instead,” Chandaravuth said. “The court supervision includes being banned from going abroad without permission from prosecutor.

“The decision has also further embarrassed Cambodia in the international community,” he added. “Lastly, it shows that the commitment of restoring human rights and democracy that [prime minister] Hun Manet boasted to international community, including at the U.N. [General Assembly], is meaningless.”

Activists from Mother Nature Cambodia in a boat.
Activists from Mother Nature Cambodia in a boat. Image courtesy of Mother Nature Cambodia.

Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the group’s founder who was exiled from Cambodia in 2015 and then barred from returning, said the court’s decision was unsurprising given Mother Nature Cambodia’s pro-democracy activism, citing previous examples.

“As for the ‘government,’ they don’t want the three Mother Nature Cambodia activists to go for two reason,” he said. “First, because it would set a precedent that other activists in similar situations could then use themselves to ask to leave the country; and secondly, because the Hun Manet regime doesn’t feel comfortable with Mother Nature Cambodia activists going to such a large ceremony to tell people what is really happening in the country in terms of natural destruction.”

Mother Nature Cambodia has routinely protested and campaigned against illegal logging, destructive sand mining, the privatization of the country’s natural resources, and the corruption that facilitates it.

“Either way, I think that the Hun Manet regime has acted in a rather dumb manner here,” Gonzalez-Davidson said. “As this refusal to allow [the activists] to travel to Sweden will merely amplify the award message to begin with, as we are already seeing, with media outlets from several countries reporting on it.”

When asked whether he felt the government would change its decision and allow the three activists to travel in the face of international pressure and media coverage, Gonzalez-Davidson said he’d be very surprised if the government backtracked.

He called the government’s position a “lose-lose situation,” in an apparent jab at former prime minister Hun Sen’s often-touted “win-win” slogan.

“They lose if they now agree after already having said no, as it will appear that they only agreed after being criticized,” he said. “And they lose if they don’t agree, as their true colors will be exposed once but, not only to the Cambodian audience, but internationally too.”

Banner image: Ly Chandaravuth (right) with other activists. Image by Gerald Flynn / Mongabay.

Mother Nature Cambodia’s ‘relentless’ activism earns Right Livelihood Award

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