The construction of a controversial, Chinese-backed mega-dam in southwestern Cambodia will not start until at least 2018, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Tuesday in a bid to stem growing opposition to the project according to The Associated Press.
“From now until 2018, there will be no permission to build (the dam),” said Hun Sen, whose mandate as prime minister ends in 2018. “Now I beg you to stop talking about it.”
While reports had surfaced before about the project’s suspension, Hun Sen’s statement provides public confirmation that no decision will be made on whether to proceed with the project until 2018, when the country is scheduled to hold its next national election.
Hun Sen’s comments came a day after Spanish activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who had campaigned against the Chinese-backed Chhay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province, was deported following the government’s refusal to renew his visa. The decision marked the first time a foreign NGO worker was prevented from entering the country in a decade.
Gonzalez-Davidson, the co-founder of the NGO Mother Nature, is a fierce critic of the project, which has also sparked concerns among the country’s opposition and local environmental organizations. Activists have warned that the 108-megawatt, $400 million dam project, which is to be built by China’s Sinohydro Corporation, would destroy one of Southeast Asia’s last great wilderness areas by clearing protected forest areas, displacing thousands of people, and threatening the breeding sites of dozens of endangered species.
Opposition politicians and local rights groups had been trying over the past week to get the government to reverse its decision not to renew Gonzalez-Davidson’s visa, with opposition leaders even appealing to Cambodia’s king, Norodom Sihamoni. But the efforts fell short, with the government alleging that Gonzalez-Davidson had abused his NGO’s status last year when he set up road blocks that prevented local authorities from traveling in the district and failing to renew his visa, which led to his eventual deportation.
According to The Cambodia Daily, his NGO Mother Nature released a sharply-worded statement “deploring” its director’s arrest and accusing the government of not granting him the 37-day grace period Gonzalez-Davidson had by law after his visa expiry.
“This sends a powerful message to the international community that all foreigners working in Cambodia risk denial of visa or the threat of deportation for criticism of the government,” Mother Nature said. “It sets a dangerous precedent which further erodes Cambodia’s already shaky democratic freedoms.”
The group vowed to continue fighting against the project.
“Even without Alex we will continue to fight the Areng dam and call upon all nature activists in Cambodia and internationally to join our struggle,” the statement said.