Earlier this week, around 300 members of the Prey Lang network gathered outside the Royal Palace in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh to pray for the protection of the Prey Lang forest – the largest area of intact lowland evergreen forest remaining in southeast Asia. The forest is under severe threat, particularly from a series of large-scale rubber concessions.
Many of the villagers were dressed as a Cambodian version of the Na’vi from James Cameron’s film, Avatar, with painted faces, green clothes and leaves for sunhats. After the religious ceremony, they split up into small groups to hand out leaflets that explain the importance of protecting Prey Lang (pronounced “Pray Long”) forest.
They didn’t get far. Within an hour police and local officials had detained more than 100 villagers and confiscated the leaflets. The villagers were released shortly afterwards, after promising not to hand out leaflets again without permission.
Three Cambodian NGOs, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Community Legal Education Center (CLEC) and Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) put out a press release protesting the detention of the villagers. The police claimed that the distribution of the leaflets could “disrupt social order”. Ou Virak, of CCHR, pointed out that this is a poor excuse for detaining anyone:
“Once again we see the phrase ‘disruption of social order’ being used to justify cracking down on freedom of expression. The real threat here is to the elite’s ability to exploit Cambodia’s natural resources. And the real threat to social order is the disregard for the homeland and livelihood of hundreds of ordinary citizens.”
Voice of America made repeated calls to the Ministry of Interior, but were told that no spokesperson was available for comment on the detentions or to explain why the government would not allow the leaflets to be handed out.
While local NGOs are speaking out about the abuse of government power in detaining villagers, international NGOs and aid agencies working in Cambodia are strangely silent.
Recently, the Cambodian government backed down, after the World Bank halted loans to Cambodia in protest at the government’s forced evictions to make way for a development project around the Boeung Kak Lake in Phnom Penh. Within a few days, the government agreed to provide land for people being evicted.
If REDD is to mean anything at all in Cambodia, it must provide a means of saving Prey Lang. Yet despite the rareness of the forest, the biodiversity, the importance to local communities and indigenous peoples and their resistance to the destruction of their forests, Prey Lang remains under imminent threat. And so far, all REDD proponents seem able to offer is the promise of “a very, very very significant financial revenue, for managing these resources instead of having to cut them down,” as David Emmet, Conservation International’s regional director, put it.
But this assumes that the government is capable of making rational economic decisions. The 26 year-long Hun Sen kleptocracy has shown this assumption to be pure fantasy. Cambodia is currently at the front of the queue to answer the question: “Can ‘fragile states’ decide to reduce their deforestation?” So far the answer is a resounding no.
CAMBODIAN CENTER FOR HUMAN RIGHTS (CCHR) – COMMUNITY LEGAL EDUCATION CENTER (CLEC) – CAMBODIAN LEAGUE FOR THE PROMOTION AND DEFENSE OF HUMAN RIGHTS (LICADHO)-
Authorities Conduct Mass Detention of Forest Activists in Phnom Penh
August 18, 2011
CCHR, CLEC and LICADHO condemn today’s mass detention of peaceful activists in Phnom Penh, in which police detained over 100 villagers for distributing environmental fliers.
The activists, who mostly hail from Cambodia’s Prey Lang forest, gathered in 14 provinces and Phnom Penh to raise awareness over deforestation and economic land concessions that have been granted inside the forest. The Prey Lang network maintains that the preservation of Prey Lang is critical to the preservation of wildlife habitat and flora that is sacred to indigenous communities. They also claim that deforestation would contribute to climate change and ultimately affect their livelihoods.
Approximately 300 Prey Lang members gathered in front of the Royal Palace to conduct a religious ceremony early on Thursday morning. The network members then dispersed in small groups throughout the city to distribute fliers advocating for the preservation of the forest. Police and local officials immediately descended on each of the locations, confiscated the leaflets and detained participants in local commune offices for questioning and “re-education.”
Police said the demonstrators were stopped because they had not given notice to the authorities prior to the distribution, and that the distribution could “disrupt social order.” Furthermore, the police claimed it was the act of distributing the fliers, rather than the contents of the fliers themselves, that could disrupt social order. However, throughout Phnom Penh, businesses distribute fliers – without the need of authorization – on a daily basis.
“Once again we see the phrase ‘disruption of social order’ being used to justify cracking down on freedom of expression,” said Ou Virak, President of CCHR. “The real threat here is to the elite’s ability to exploit Cambodia’s natural resources. And the real threat to social order is the disregard for the homeland and livelihood of hundreds of ordinary citizens.”
At least 106 people were detained, including four at the Srah Chork sangkat office, 22 at the Boeung Salang sangkat office, 24 at the Boeung Keng Kang 3 sangkat office, 18 at the Chatamuk sangkat office, 11 at the Phsar Damkor sangkat office, and 27 at the Tonle Bassac sangkat office.
Prey Lang forest is situated in parts of Preah Vihear, Kampong Thom, Stung Treng and Kratie provinces. Cambodian authorities have identified the area as an important for conservation, but it remains officially unprotected. In recent years, economic land concessions granted to private companies have encroached on the area.
“The Prey Lang network and its members have a right to gather peacefully and share their concerns,” said Naly Pilorge, Director of LICADHO. “This is a fundamental part of democracy. The mass detentions were a totally disproportional and shocking response to what were relatively minor and subdued gatherings.”
This is not the first time that authorities have cracked down on the Prey Lang communities. In February 2011, communities claim that two companies began logging on their land so that they could plant rubber trees. Community members approached the worksite and were met by groups of armed police, military police, soldiers and forestry administration officers. The authorities surrounded them and prevented them from moving, even preventing them from getting water from streams. The forces also fired their weapons. The group was stranded without food and water for three days. Finally the communities returned home, but armed forces followed and took note of those who had participated in the protest.
Prey Lang network then came to Phnom Penh on May 25, 2011, for a demonstration at the Freedom Park. That protest proceeded without incident.
“This same group had demonstrated before – on the same issues – in Phnom Penh,” said Yeng Virak, Executive Director of CLEC. “Today’s claim by the authorities that their activities could disrupt social order is an excuse to avoid addressing the national problem of Prey Lang.”
In recent weeks, authorities have interfered with at least one other group of citizens for distributing leaflets on issues of public concern. On July 23, a group of garment workers distributed fliers highlighting burgeoning inflation rates and calling for lower prices for food and other staples. Four workers were arrested for taking part in the distribution.
CCHR, CLEC and LICADHO calls upon Phnom Penh authorities to cease arresting and detaining Cambodian citizens who distribute informational fliers on legitimate issues of public concern. The government must listen to the Cambodian people on the frontline of issues such as deforestation, rather than silencing them.