A Cambodian court has imprisoned three environmental activists belonging to the advocacy group Mother Nature, after finding them guilty of “incitement” for organizing a one-woman protest against the filling of lakes in the country’s capital Phnom Penh.
On Wednesday, a judge at Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced activists Long Kunthea and Phuon Keoraksmey to 18 months in prison for “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order” and fined them 4 million riel (about $1,000) each. A third activist, Thun Ratha, 29, was sentenced to 20 months on the same charge, and he was also fined 4 million riel.
The trio was arrested in September while organizing a protest in which Kunthea planned a live-streamed solo march to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s imposing villa in central Phnom Penh, to raise awareness about the destruction of Boeung Tamok, one of the city’s last remaining lakes.
Over the past two decades, a number of large lakes in Phnom Penh have been filled in and the reclaimed land sold off to wealthy business interests, which invariably enjoy close links to Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Critics have long claimed that filling in lakes has displaced thousands living along their fringes, as well as exacerbating monsoon flooding by depriving the city of important water catchments.
As in the raft of recent prosecutions of Cambodia government critics and opposition figures, the legal particulars of the case are mostly beside the point. According to the local rights group LICADHO, the activists’ trial “largely consisted of questions regarding the Mother Nature Facebook account, who was funding the environmental rights defenders, and publicly available social media posts, none of which constituted evidence of incitement.”
“This is very unjust. Sentencing people who just care about nature,” Voice of Democracy, a local media outlet, reported Ratha saying to reporters as he departed the courtroom. “The Khmer court is like this,” he added. “Please tell people that we are still strong.”
Two additional activists were also sentenced in absentia on the charge of “incitement,” and warrants issued for their arrest. Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish national who founded Mother Nature, was sentenced to 20 months in prison, while environmental activist Chea Kunthin received an 18-month sentence. Both were also fined 4 million riel each.
Since its establishment in 2013, Mother Nature has become a major irritant for Hun Sen’s government, working to expose the environmental impacts of business projects, often connected to high-ranking members of the government and ruling party, which threaten Cambodia’s biodiversity and fast-disappearing natural resources.
Among the group’s major campaigns have been efforts to halt a hydropower project in the Cardamom Mountains and expose the rampant illegal dredging and export of sand that has taken place in the estuaries of southwest Cambodia. Mother Nature became well known for the videos it posted to social media, exposing the environmental impacts of economic projects, which it has connected to powerful individuals.
Its efforts have unsurprisingly courted friction with the increasingly intolerant Cambodian authorities, which have now imprisoned eight members of the group for their work. Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia in 2015 and has been consistently denied permission to re-enter the country, even to attend his own trial and those of his fellow activists.
Phil Robertson of the U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch on Wednesday described the convictions as “part of the Cambodian government’s continued vendetta against Mother Nature, a thorn in the government’s side that the officials are now moving to destroy through bogus criminal charges.”
Indeed, the arrests should be seen as part of an unrelenting political crackdown that Amnesty International has called a “relentless assault” on dissent, which has excised most open forms of political opposition and cast a chill over Cambodia’s civil society.
The government is also currently holding mass trials of nearly 130 defendants, mostly former members or supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was disbanded in 2017 after being accused of plotting with the U.S. government to overthrow the CPP administration.