Members of the Mother Nature Youth Movement provide critical information to Cambodia’s government as an environmental watchdog and should not have to carry out their jobs while facing the threat of arrest, according to civil society groups.
Mother Nature activists have been producing numerous videos exposing pollution, illegal sand dredging, corruption, the dumping of wastewater into the sea, and the illegal trafficking of endangered wildlife products. The videos, posted to the group’s Facebook page, have attracted hundreds of thousands of views.
But the group’s activism hasn’t only drawn interest from a sympathetic audience. Instead, several members have faced prosecution and imprisonment by authorities in the capital Phnom Penh for advocating against environmental destruction by powerful and wealthy individuals.
In the latest case, Long Kunthea, Thon Ratha, and Phuong Keo Reaksmey were arrested in early September after Long Kunthea posted a message to Facebook saying she planned to walk from Wat Phnom to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home with the aim of deterring the government from filling in Ta Mauk Lake on the outskirts of the capital.
The trio have been charged with “inciting serious social unrest” along with Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson and Young Khmer Thavark Movement member Chea Kunthin, who are out on bail awaiting trial. All five face up to two years in prison if convicted.
The charges against them have prompted civil society groups in Cambodia to speak out on their behalf, saying the five activists and their organization should be permitted to work without the threat of arrest. They noted that the Kampot provincial government recently acknowledged shortcomings related to sewage draining into the Kampot River and took action following one of Mother Nature’s videos.
“The government should take a different approach, rather than silencing people,” Ul Vann, president of the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN), told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“They need to support the environmental activists as well as other active citizens who continue to work with the government to solve problems such as natural disasters. Arresting them is like shooting the messenger.”
Cheuy Oudom Reaksmey, the director of Cambodia’s Natural Resource Protection Group—which was founded by his father, slain forest activist Chut Wutty—told RFA that activist youth groups like Mother Nature “benefit the country” and should not be targeted for the work they do.
“The government should support their sacrifices because they work voluntarily, without pay,” he said.
“I would like to see the government treat those who protect natural resources as friends, not foes. They are not the enemies of the government or the people and should be treated likewise.”
Campaign of intimidation
Cambodia’s environmental issues are considered grave, with one of the world’s most rapid rates of deforestation, widespread water pollution problems, and long-term threats to the vital Mekong River system.
Mother Nature founder Gonzalez-Davidson said the government’s actions constitute a threat to those who dare to speak the truth about Cambodia’s environmental issues. He said his movement will not be cowed as the result of intimidation and will continue its work with some slight changes to its strategy.
“Mother Nature Youth has set an example of courage for young Cambodians in general. Thus, Hun Sen’s government beats them because they would like to use such mistreatment as an example for intimidating other young people,” he said.
“The simple message Hun Sen wishes to convey to the public and young people is that if they continue to call a spade a spade in public, they will catch them. They will hurt them and make them shut up. This is a Hun Sen scare tactic. The regime is getting very paranoid of its own people who speak the truth about general social issues.”
Meanwhile, democratic nations, domestic and international civil society groups, and U.N. human rights experts continue to urge Hun Sen’s government to release the Mother Nature Youth activists, who they refer to as “prisoners of conscience,” and call for Cambodia to refrain from punishing them for their work.
Repeated calls to government spokesperson Phay Siphan and ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Eysan seeking comment on the activists went unanswered.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.