Cambodian authorities detained and questioned a youth activist from the domestic environmental nongovernmental organization Mother Nature Cambodia on Monday for allegedly "inciting a community to protest" and for illegally flying a drone, a domestic human rights group and provincial official said.
Hun Vannak had gone to Koh Kor village, Rorka Khpuos commune, in southeastern Cambodia’s Kandal province by invitation to monitor a meeting with Sa’ang district authorities, commune and village officials, and representatives of a sand-dredging company, according to a statement issued by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
"CCHR has received information that Mr. Vannak is being questioned in relation to allegedly illegally inciting the community to protest, and for allegedly illegally flying a drone," the statement said. "The exact nature of the alleged offenses is yet to be confirmed by the authorities."
Sa’ang District authorities picked him up in the village at 12:30 p.m. local time and questioned him for several hours before releasing him at 8 p.m., CCHR and villagers said.
About 20 police officers and uniformed representatives of the Leng Chin Group Company Ltd. intercepted him as he walked to buy lunch after meeting with roughly 200 villagers affected by sand dredging in the Tonle Bassac River, they said.
The villagers had gathered to protest against the Leng Chin Group, the company conducting the sand-dredging operations, to demand that it stop its activities and compensate them for lost and damaged property.
The officers forced Hun Vannak into a police vehicle and took him to the Ta Kmao police station for questioning, CCHR and villagers said.
Those who witnessed his apprehension told RFA’s Khmer Service that authorities had said there would be no arrests during the meeting.
Several villagers waited outside the police station for news about the activist’s release.
“Hun Vannak was brought in to the police station for questioning regarding the status of his organization and the purpose of his presence at the location where he was detained,” Khem Chankiri, deputy provincial governor of Kandal province, told RFA.
“Last week he even flew a drone illegally, so he has been detained for questioning only,” he said.
Hun Vannak flew the drone over areas affected by sand dredging on Aug. 5.
After he was released, Hun Vannak told RFA that authorities questioned him about his involvement in helping the 200 villagers organize their protest.
The police threatened him during the interrogation because they said his activities were illegal, he said.
Hun Vannak argued with them that his activities to help educate people about their rights and peaceful protest were not illegal, he said
He also told police that he educated the villagers about the roles and responsibilities of the authorities and the Leng Chin Group.
Before police released him, he said he had to agree to not fly drones in Koh Kor village, to stay out of the village, to not interfere in the administrative matters of local authorities, and to refrain from engaging in any protests that incite disorder and unrest.
Determined to fight
Villagers said members of Mother Nature, including Huy Vannak, came to Koh Kor to tell them about their rights and give them instructions for conducting peaceful protests to voice their concerns about that sand-dredging activities that destroyed their homes during a riverbank collapse.
Villagers told RFA that they are determined to continue fighting against the sand dredging.
They also said officials from the Ministry of Mines and Energy had met with Leng Chin Group representatives to ask the company to stop dredging sand too closely to the riverbank and the villagers’ homes.
The company agreed to dredge sand at least 50 meters (164 feet) from the riverbank per the villagers’ request with approval from the ministry.
Initially, the Leng Chin Group complied with the terms, but soon it moved its dredging vessels as close as 25 meters (82 feet) from the riverbank, prompting the villagers to protest, they said.
Sand dredging operations have been conducted in Koh Kor village for more than seven years.
Villagers have been meeting almost daily to discuss the dredging and to plan advocacy activities, although the meetings are routinely been disrupted by district-level authorities and police, CCHR said.
This is not the first time that authorities have detained or harassed members of Mother Nature.
On June 11, police repeated asked activist Thun Ratha to produce his identification card while he was staying with the villagers affected by the sand dredging in the same village.
Fearing for their safety, the activist and 20 villagers turned to the United Nations human rights office in Cambodia for help.
In another related sand dredging event in southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, three other Mother Nature activists were arrested and jailed.
Try Sovikea, 28, San Mala, 26, and Sim Somnang, 31, were detained for 10 months before receiving 18-month sentences in July 2016 for threatening to destroy a barge belonging to the sand-dredging company Direct Access in 2015.
They were released when a judge suspended the last eight months of their sentences, and they subsequently filed an appeal against a $25,000 fine they were ordered to pay.
After filing that appeal, however, they fled the country in late January 2017 to boycott the appeal process because they feared that the court would issue an unfair ruling.
San Mala returned to Cambodia two months later, saying that he felt it was safe for him to come back.
In February 2015, Cambodian authorities refused to renew the visa of Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, Mother Nature’s director, and expelled him from the country.
Reported by Sel San for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.