Cambodian authorities on Thursday arrested three members of the Mother Nature environmental group who were planning to march to the home of Prime Minister Hun Sen to demand an end to plans to fill in a lake in the capital Phnom Penh which hundreds of families depend on for their livelihood, sources said.
The three activists—Thun Ratha and his female colleagues Long Kunthea and Phuong Keorasmey—were taken into custody separately, with Thun Rathea seized by police while preparing a video to livestream the protest, Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Police have accused the group, who have not yet been charged or released, of operating a recording studio without a permit and with distributing “false information” on Facebook, Gonzalez-Davidson said, adding, “From a legal and constitutional point of view, the detention of these three activists is arbitrary and completely illegal, and is nothing more than a state-sponsored kidnapping.”
“We regard this as yet another serious crime by the Hun Sen dictatorship—one that was designed to silence Cambodia’s civil society, but which will have the completely opposite effect,” he said.
“Hun Sen and his gang of thugs masquerading as a so-called government really want to be careful, as people are getting angrier with them now with each repressive move they make.”
Reached for comment, Phnom Penh Municipality Police spokesperson San Sok Seiha told RFA that Ratha was being questioned about his studio, which police said was being operated illegally, and that his colleagues were being asked about information they had posted on Mother Nature’s Cambodian Facebook page.
He declined to comment on any charges that might be brought against the group.
Violation of democratic rights
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the Cambodian rights group Licadho, called the group’s arrest a violation of democratic freedoms in Cambodia, adding that the move will now draw even more criticism of the Cambodian government from the international community.
“As a human rights group, we would like the authorities to respect [Cambodia’s] constitution. We are obligated to respect the constitution and international treaties on human rights to ensure that people enjoy their freedoms and basic human rights,” he said.
Government development on Boeung Tamok Lake, one of the last large lakes in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, is impacting communities that rely on the lake for their livelihoods and is causing significant flooding in the city as a result of runoff during heavy rains, Mother Nature said in July.
In a video posted to Facebook, Mother Nature said that despite a 2016 decree signed by Hun Sen designating the 8,000 acre lake as public land, the government in June authorized the Ministry of Defense to fill in around 740 acres of the lake to build a military base.
The group also noted that more than 300 families depend on Boeung Tamok Lake to earn a daily income through fishing and growing lotus, and development has now proceeded despite a law which says that public land—including lakes—cannot be sold or leased unless they have lost their “public interest value.”
Additionally, Mother Nature’s video said, the filling up of Boeung Tamok Lake and other lakes in the capital for development is eliminating crucial reservoirs for rainfall, causing severe flooding in the city during weather events.
Land disputes are a bitter problem in Cambodia, where rural villagers and urban dwellers alike have been mired in conflicts that a U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has warned could threaten the country’s stability.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.