Newly released Cambodian activists honored among Front Line Defenders awardees

  • In early November, six young activists associated with environmental advocacy group Mother Nature Cambodia were released from prison after spending up to 14 months behind bars.
  • Rights groups are calling on the Cambodian government to drop all charges against the activists and to release 60 other political prisoners who remain incarcerated.
  • Front Line Defenders, an international rights group, recently recognized Mother Nature Cambodia in its 2021 awards.
  • The young activists say the award serves as a source of motivation for them to continue their work to expose corruption and environmental abuses, including illegal mining, deforestation and pollution.

Earlier this month, six young activists associated with advocacy group Mother Nature Cambodia were released on bail after spending up to 14 months in prison. Although nominally at liberty, their charges of conspiracy, insulting the monarchy, and incitement were upheld and they remain under strict court supervision.

This week, their commitment was recognized when Mother Nature Cambodia was named among the awardees in the 2021 Front Line Defenders Award, an accolade for rights defenders who have shown extraordinary resilience and dedication in the face of adversity and intimidation.

Mother Nature Cambodia was founded in 2013 to help local communities mobilize against a planned hydropower project in the remote Areng Valley in the Cardamom Mountains. It has grown into a movement spearheaded by youth activists who campaign to expose corruption and environmental abuses, including illegal mining, deforestation and pollution.

“We accept this award on behalf of Cambodian people, who are fighting to protect our natural resources and those who have sacrificed their lives, freedom and their own happiness to protect the environment,” said Phuon Keoraksmey at an online press briefing on Nov. 24. Keoraksmey and Ly Chandaravuth, both among the released prisoners, accepted the award on behalf of Mother Nature Cambodia.

They described the award as “motivation” for Mother Nature Cambodia to continue its efforts “for environmental protection and for corruption-free development.”

Cardamom Mountains
A river in the Cardamom Mountains, a biodiverse landscape in southwest Cambodia. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Release comes with restrictions

The newly released activists include Keoraksmey, Long Kunthea and Thun Ratha, who were convicted of incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order in May 2020 following a peaceful campaign to save Phnom Penh’s Boeung Tamok Lake from being filled in by authorities. They had been incarcerated since September 2020.

The three other detainees, Chandaravuth, Sun Ratha and Yim Leanghy, were then arrested and charged in June 2021 in connection with their work documenting the dumping of raw sewage effluent into the Tonle Sap River in the vicinity of the Royal Palace. Mother Nature Cambodia’s Spanish founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported in 2015, was also charged in both cases in absentia.

In addition to the six environmental advocates, Cambodian authorities released 20 other activists in November 2021. However, rights groups say the government is not doing enough; charges have not been dropped and conditions for bail severely restrict the activists’ rights, including international travel bans and monthly check-ins with authorities.

“The release of 26 wrongfully detained political prisoners is good news, but there is nothing to stop the Cambodian authorities from rearresting them at any time,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement. HRW said the recent releases were just a start, with some 60 political prisoners remaining behind bars.

Adams added that the releases are likely an attempt by Cambodian authorities to improve their international image ahead of high-level meetings, including the 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit, which took place in Phnom Penh last week.

“Cambodia’s prisoner releases show the government’s apparent concern for the international response to the ASEM meeting and the spotlight it will have as the chair of ASEAN in 2022,” Adams said. “The EU, US, donors and other friends of Cambodia should press Prime Minister Hun Sen to end the cynical game of revolving prison doors where some people are released, and others take up their places in the same prison cells.”

Yellow-cheeked gibbon
Yellow-cheeked gibbon (Nomascus gabriellae), a rainforest specialist in Cambodia. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

Environmental protection is not a crime

Chandaravuth told Mongabay that given Cambodia’s current political climate, it is essential that people continue to stand up for their rights, despite increasingly strict clampdowns on assembly and freedom of speech. In particular, he said the government is unlikely to grant rights to a clean and sustainable environment, public services, transparency and democracy “for free,” and that protecting the environment is not a crime.

“If more of us join these kinds of campaigns then there wouldn’t be any kind of clampdown, because when people stand up together the government must rethink about its activities,” Chandaravuth said. “But if [people] remain silent then we will still be abused by the government … silence is not a choice, we have to raise our voice. That is the only way that will bring us a future.”

Alongside Mother Nature Cambodia, Front Line Defenders 2021 awardees include rights workers from five other countries working on racial justice, housing rights, minority rights, land rights, self-determination and disability rights.

Andrew Anderson, executive director of Front Line Defenders, said the organization was “thrilled” to be able to recognize the work of the awardees and that “their courage and resilience is inspirational and demonstrates to all that another world is possible.”

Banner image: The six Mother Nature Cambodia activists recently released from prison after up to 14 months behind bars. Image by LICADHO via Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 4.0)


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