A Cambodian environmental advocacy group on Thursday suspended a campaign calling on the government to protect an island habitat in Koh Kong province after its bicycle-mounted youth activists faced harassment and the threat of arrest from local authorities, according to the group’s members.
Authorities in Koh Kong first stopped the 21 Mother Nature activists on Wednesday in Trapaing Roung district after completing only 60 kilometers (37 miles) of their journey to the capital Phnom Penh from Koh Kong township, which had kicked off a day earlier, group leader Rey Reaksa told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Police initially claimed concerns over the potential spread of the coronavirus and took samples at a local health center using nasal swabs, but later said they did not have permission to continue with their campaign. The activists had planned to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen asking him to designate Koh Kong Krov Island a protected area to defend it against the impact of tourism and private interests.
When police told the group to sign an agreement to end the campaign, the activists refused, prompting authorities to confiscate their bicycles. The activists instead decided to walk the remaining 140 kilometers (87 miles) to Phnom Penh to deliver their petition.
On Thursday, after being monitored by authorities overnight, Rey Reaksa said police stopped them from walking on the order of Koh Kong Provincial Governor Sok Sothy and demanded to know why they were wearing T-shirts bearing the message “Rescue Koh Kong Krov,” suggesting the group was trying to “disrupt social order.”
Police again pressured them to sign a document ending the campaign and when the activists again refused, authorities confiscated their T-shirts and threatened them with arrest, prompting Mother Nature suspend its activities.
“This is an abuse of human rights against the youth—they violated our rights as campaigners for nature and ruined our plan,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Post cited government spokesman Phay Siphan as saying that “there is no problem with this activity” and referred the matter to the Ministry of the Environment. Environment ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra said any campaign by the youth group was their right, but the blockade was the decision of the local authority and the ministry only supports legal activities.
However, Voice of America quoted Sok Eysan, a spokesperson for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), as saying that the group had “bad intentions” with the campaign. Asked to identify a specific law they had violated, Sok Eysan said it was an attack on the government which was in charge of protecting the environment.
Hour In, Koh Kong provincial coordinator for local rights group Licadho, told RFA Thursday that the authorities had “seriously violated” the rights of the Mother Nature activists, who were only working to protect the environment, as the government has advocated.
“There is no law to prevent youths from biking to petition Hun Sen’s cabinet to protect Koh Kong Krov,” he said.
Muong Sopheak, who took part in the campaign, said authorities had monitored his group “nonstop” for the past two days.
He said Mother Nature is concerned that Koh Kong Krov will be destroyed in the name of development, as has happened to several other of Cambodia’s islands.
“The authorities have used many pretexts to prevent us from protecting the forest and natural resources,” he said.
Koh Kong Krov is a 103-square-kilometer (40-square-mile) island located about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Koh Kong township that is home to a forest, waterfalls, beaches, and wildlife. The island’s inhabitants mostly consist of sustainable fishermen who rely on its natural resources to earn a living.
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