A Cambodian environmental protection group is suspending operations in Cambodia amid concerns for the safety of its activists, many of whom have been detained and jailed on charges widely thought to be politically motivated, the group’s founder said in an interview this week.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, a Spanish environmentalist, told RFA in an interview Monday that the Mother Nature NGO still exists, however, and has not closed its doors. Instead, it will wait to see the outcome of court proceedings against six of its activists recently released on bail, he said.
“Their case files are now in the hands of the investigating judges pending their cases being brought to trial,” Davidson said. “We will continue our activities, but not with our youth activist members working inside Cambodia,” he said.
If Cambodian courts do not send the six to prison, Mother Nature may go back to working inside the country, where half or more of the population are teenage youths, Gonzalez-Davidson said.
“This means that even though Mother Nature has no members or staff, we still have millions of partners, mostly young people, who can cooperate with us to protect the forest and environment,” he said.
“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 the live in a dictatorial regime,” he added.
Gonzalez-Davidson was deported from Cambodia in February 2015 after the government refused to renew his visa. Opposition groups and local NGOs said the Khmer-speaking activist was expelled to prevent him from organizing opposition to the planned Chhay Areng hydropower dam in southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province.
The U.S. $400 million China-led project backed by a ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker would have forced hundreds of ethnic minority families off their ancestral land and destroyed the habitats of endangered animals, they said.
Gonzalez-Davidson has been refused re-entry to Cambodia, though on May 5 he was convicted in absentia along with three other Mother Nature activists — Long Kunthea, 22, Phuon Keorasmey, 19, and Thun Ratha, 29 — and sentenced to up to 20 months in prison on incitement charges related to their activism.
He was charged again by the same court in June with plotting against and insulting the country’s king when authorities arrested three of his Mother Nature colleagues — Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy, and Ly Chandaravuth — who were placed in pre-trial detention.
Released from prison on bail on Nov. 12, Phuon Keorasmy vowed to continue her activities to protect Cambodia’s environment.
“For me, even though we are no longer activists of Mother Nature, we will still continue to do our work. We cannot give up our willingness to protect our natural resources,” she said.
Keorasmey said that she and her fellow activists were cheered by the international support they received while in prison.
“This told us that our work was lawful and good for the country,” she said.
“Moreover, I see that our country is still destroying our natural resources, is promoting irresponsible and non-transparent development, and has no space for human rights and environmental activists to work freely.”
“As young people, and as active citizens and masters of our country, we cannot remain silent,” she said.
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