Cambodian and international rights advocates have condemned the harsh charges imposed on three 20-something environmental activists in the country earlier this week, the latest sign of the Cambodian government’s determination to stamp out the last traces of independent political advocacy.
On June 16, Sun Ratha, 26, Ly Chandaravuth, 22, and Seth Chhivlimeng, 25, were arrested in the capital Phnom Penh, reportedly for filming the flow of raw sewage in the Tonle Sap river. Another activist, 33-year-old Yim Leanghy, was arrested in Kandal province outside the capital.
Initially details about the arrests were unclear, but Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday formally charged Ratha and Chandaravuth with “conspiracy” and insulting the king, while Leanghy was charged only with “conspiracy.” (Judges did not make clear what the pair did to warrant the lese majeste charge.) Chhivlimeng was released without charge, but the other three face between five and 10 years in prison, in addition to fines of up to $2,500.
The activists are affiliated with the environmental group Mother Nature Cambodia, which was dissolved and stripped of its NGO status by the Ministry of Interior in September 2017, amid a broader crackdown on civil society and opponents of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Also charged Sunday was the group’s exiled leader Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported from Cambodia in 2015 and has been consistently denied permission to re-enter the country.
The recent arrests came after a Cambodian court imprisoned three Mother Nature activists last month, after finding them guilty of “incitement” for organizing a one-woman protest against the filling of Boeung Tamok, one of Phnom Penh’s last remaining lakes.
In a statement, Chak Sopheap, the head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that the latest charges were an illustration of the “dangerous and restrictive environment” in which Cambodian activists are forced to operate after years of escalating crackdowns. Ming Yu Hah of Amnesty International described them as “a blatant attempt to silence and intimidate not only Mother Nature Cambodia, but an entire generation of Cambodian youth.”
Since its establishment in 2013, Mother Nature has become a major irritant for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. The group has worked to expose the environmental impacts of business projects and infrastructure projects, including a hydropower dams in the Cardamom Mountains and sand mining operations in Cambodia’s coastal estuaries, with close links to high-ranking members of the government and ruling CPP.
The latest arrests came nine days after U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy met for talks with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, during which he said he urged the government to “partner with civil society environmental activists, not prosecute them for speaking out to protect natural resources.”
Crackdowns on environmental activists were cited as one of the reasons for the U.S. government’s decision last week to withdraw funding from a conservation project in the Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in northeast Cambodia. The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh said that the U.S. Agency for International Development would prematurely end the $21 million Greening Prey Lang project due to continued deforestation and ongoing assaults on environmental defenders.
Part of what has made Mother Nature such a target of government repression is that unlike donor-funded conservation schemes like Greening Prey Lang, which are obliged for diplomatic reasons to assume the good faith of the Cambodian government, Mother Nature has been unabashed about the political nature of its advocacy – and the true source of the country’s environmental problems. On its website, the group directly connects the “systematic destruction of Cambodia’s natural heritage” with “corruption and abuse of power” and the interests of Cambodia’s “dictatorial elite.”
Yet fear of public scrutiny alone fails to explain the overkill of the charges levied against the three Mother Nature environmentalists, and the government’s grim determination to stamp out the group’s activities. This instead reflects the CPP government’s profound paranoia about foreign influence, and its tendency to conflate independent civil society activism on any issue with attempts to engineer the overthrow of the present government.
For instance, shortly after the four activists’ arrest on June 16, an Interior Ministry spokesperson alleged that the authorities had proof that Mother Nature “got foreign money to commit rebellious actions to incite [people] to topple the government.” While Mother Nature’s website does not contain details about its funding, Gonzalez-Davidson recently told Voice of Democracy, a local media outlet, that the group’s “major source of finances has always been volunteering and self funds, as well as Cambodians (abroad and inside the country) who want to see a better country.”
The likely next steps in this story are fairly predictable: The Cambodian government’s paranoia will no doubt simply be confirmed as foreign governments line up to condemn these latest convictions, prompting it to intensify further its campaign on those environmental activists brave enough to continue with their work.