This week, Cambodia charged four environmental activists with conspiracy to plot against the country’s king. Per U.S. News, last week three of the activists documented industrial waste being emptied into a city river. The activists are part of an environmental group called Mother Nature and according to mothernaturecambodia.org, their goal is to “put an end to the systemic destruction of Cambodia’s natural heritage,” (U.S. News).
The deputy prosecutor of Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Plang Sophal, confirmed the charges against the activists but has not specified which laws were broken. The evidence collected by police was supposedly “an insult to the king” which was the only elaboration given by Sophal. According to Reuters, the charges of lese majeste, or insults against the monarchy, are much more prevalent in places like Thailand, not Cambodia. If the four activists are found guilty, they each face up to 10 years in prison for plotting and up to five years in jail for insulting the royal family.
The founder of Mother Nature Cambodia, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, was also charged in absentia to which he responded that the charges were “completely fabricated” and was a demonstration of government paranoia about its citizens (Reuters). Davidson sent Reuters a comment via text, which read “I see [the charges] as further recognition that the regime sees my peaceful activism as a threat” (Reuters). The other three activists which were detained on June 16 while filming runoff into the Tonle Sap river are Sun Ratha (26), Ly Chandaravuth (22), and Yim Leanghy (32). Phay Siphan, a spokesman for the Cambodian government, commented that the defendants should “find a good lawyer to challenge the issue in the courtroom instead of fabricating the news” (Reuters). While the United States was slated to begin a wildlife conservation program with Cambodia, last week the partnership was eliminated due to a failure on Cambodia’s part in logging and by intimidating environmentalists (Reuters).
From the outside, this situation presents itself as Cambodia fishing for any charges applicable to try to silence activists. The Cambodian government has a history of targeting environmentalists, specifically those affiliated with Mother Nature. The arrests and charges brought against the four members this week only mark the start of escalation by the government. Cambodian officials will continue to intimidate activists in the future if there are no international repercussions brought against them. The fact that the U.S. backed out of the wildlife conservation program will hopefully send a message in terms of how serious-earth preservation is.
Other countries which have environmental treaties or organizations set up with Cambodia should be encouraged to threaten withdrawal, as this would act as a deterrent. The United Nations could also step in as an international agent to investigate if Cambodia is simply trying to silence environmentalists. There is a center within the United Nations called the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre. According to the center’s website, their goal is to promote biodiversity and allow people to make informed decisions about their lifestyles and the planet by working closely with scientists and policy experts around the world.
Cambodia’s dumping of industrial waste into local rivers and water supply qualifies as something international actors should be looking into. The international response to punishing environmental activists needs to be much stronger and more present if there will be changes made in the future. The repercussions need to come aimed at the countries deterring conservation, instead of the individuals who are trying to make a positive change.
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