October 4, 2023

Cambodia: Lift Travel Ban on Climate Activists

Mother Nature Cambodia Blocked from Traveling to Accept the Right Livelihood Award

The Cambodian Government should reverse travel restrictions on three representatives of Mother Nature Cambodia so they can accept the Right Livelihood Award in Stockholm, Climate Rights International said today.

On September 28, 2023, Right Livelihood announced the winners of the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the “Alternative Nobel Prize.” The award recognizes individuals and organizations dedicated to creating positive change and addressing pressing human rights issues. Mother Nature Cambodia was honored, “For their fearless and engaging activism to preserve Cambodia’s natural environment in the context of a highly restricted democratic space.”

Thon Ratha, Phuong Keo Reaksmey, and Long Khunthea are currently serving suspended prison sentences after the three were arrested on June 16, 2021, on politically motivated charges of conspiracy and “insulting the king,” stemming from their reporting of sewage entering the Tonle Sap River.

“Prime Minister Hun Manet has just failed the first test of whether his regime will be more open to criticism than his dictatorial father, Hun Sen,” said Brad Adams, Executive Director at Climate Rights International. “Hun Manet still has a chance to show he’s different by not only lifting this ridiculous travel ban, but by also requesting the courts to reverse the equally ridiculous conviction of people whose only crime was trying to protect Cambodia from environmental destruction.”

Mother Nature Cambodia was founded in 2012 to challenge “a small elite of well-connected individuals and corrupt, ruthless government officials to amass vast fortunes, causing widespread destruction of the nation’s natural resources and gross human rights violations.” The organization has used public reporting and participation in peaceful protests to address climate change and environmental protection.

Mother Nature Cambodia’s first campaign in 2012 was to stop the development of a hydro-dam in the Areng Valley. The original plan for the $300 million project would have resulted in the flooding of hundreds of homes in the area, most of them belonging to Indigenous People. The campaign was successful thanks to the joint efforts of Mother Nature Cambodia and the local community. In 2016, Mother Nature Cambodia helped secure a temporary ban on the additional dredging and exporting of sand from Koh Kong, a big victory in Cambodia’s fight against sand mining scams. The organization regularly produces informative and digestible videos that resonate with the youth population and have amassed more than 20 million views.

Cambodian authorities have responded by targeting the organization and its staff. For example, on September 15, 2017, the organization was deregistered by the Ministry of Interior and their founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, was expelled from the country.

Cambodia is just one of a number of countries that are targeting climate change defenders with politically motivated criminal charges, all while allowing environmental criminals to operate with impunity. Last week, Vietnam sentenced climate activist Hoang Thi Minh Hong to three years in prison on a fabricated charge of tax evasion, the fifth climate activist to be imprisoned in the country in the last two years. In the United Kingdom, climate protestors have been detained in jail for up to six months before their trials even commenced. As the effects of climate change continue to be felt more each year, countries around the globe must cease the brutal responses to individuals and groups engaged in peaceful protests.

“The Cambodian government seems to think that blocking the award recipients from traveling will decrease the attention Mother Nature Cambodia will receive, but all they have done is shine a spotlight on their work and the repression they face,” said Adams. “Instead of persecuting climate and environmental activists, the government should target the corrupt government officials and tycoons who are profiting from the destruction of the country’s forests, lakes, and rivers.”

Photo Credit: Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia. Photo via Pixabay (CC0).

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