Mother Nature has suspended its operations in Cambodia pending the results of court cases brought against the environmental protection group, which have outraged human rights activists and urged a rethink by Western envoys.
At least six court cases are still outstanding after Mother Nature, which has adopted an aggressive approach to environmentalism in Cambodia, found itself targeted by authorities amid a crackdown on opposition politicians and the independent press ahead of elections in 2018.
In June, Sun Ratha, 26, Ly Chandaravuth, 22, and Yim Leanghy, 32, were charged with insulting the king and plotting to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The three were initially placed in pretrial detention and are facing between five and 10 years in prison if convicted.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish environmentalist who founded Mother Nature, told Radio Free Asia that the NGO still existed and has not closed its doors but would wait to see the outcome of court proceedings against its six activists, who were recently released on bail.
“Their case files are now in the hands of the investigating judges pending their cases being brought to trial,” Gonzalez-Davidson said. “We will continue our activities, but not with our youth activist members working inside Cambodia.”
In May, he was convicted in absentia along with three other Mother Nature activists: Long Kunthea, 22, Phuon Keorasmey, 19, and Thun Ratha, 29. They were sentenced to up to 20 months in prison on incitement charges.
All six were released on bail in November following protests from the governments of the United States, Australia, and Sweden. U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy said he was “very troubled to hear of the arrests” adding that “documenting pollution is a public service, not terrorism.”
Lt. Gen. Chhay Kim Khoeun had initially alleged Mother Nature was operating “with terror financing supplied to their bosses by foreigners,” which was being used in an attempt to topple the government under the guise of helping the environment.
Hun Sen has consistently warned of outside forces plotting to overthrow his government and as recently as Wednesday he said the only way to destroy and prevent “color revolutions” was to have full control of the armed forces and civil administration.
“We shall take immediate actions against color revolution. The core strategy is to have full control on armed forces and civil administrations… The armed forces must destroy whoever violates the constitution. Armed forces must take immediate actions when a coup or color revolution occurs,” Cambodia’s tough-talking prime minister said.
Gonzalez-Davidson has been refused reentry to Cambodia since he was deported from the country in February 2015, after the government refused to renew his visa.
He and Mother Nature had fiercely opposed the planned $400 million Chhay Areng hydropower dam in Koh Kong province which environmentalists claimed would have forced hundreds of ethnic minority families off their traditional lands and destroyed the habitats of endangered animals.
It was the first time in a decade that a foreign NGO worker was denied entry to Cambodia and construction of the Chhay Areng dam was suspended a day after Gonzalez-Davidson was deported.
He said the decision to suspend operations was made out of concerns for staff but Mother Nature could still rely on “millions of partners, mostly young people, who can cooperate with us to protect the forest and environment.”
“Therefore, we hope that our new strategy will provide both greater effectiveness and safety for our six activists awaiting decisions by the court. This is how we can reduce their risks while they live in a dictatorial regime,” he added.