Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday defended his government’s decision to deport a Spanish environmentalist who had led a campaign against a controversial dam project, though he reiterated a pledge that the dam would not be built under his watch.
Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, director of the NGO Mother Nature Cambodia, was put on a plane to Thailand Monday night—three days after his visa had expired—and placed on a black list that may prevent his return to the country, despite appeals from opposition politicians and civil society.
Speaking during an event to mark Clean Cities Day, Hun Sen criticized the Spanish activist for setting up road blocks with local villagers that prevented officials from traveling in Koh Kong province, where the Chhay Areng hydropower dam project is located.
“It was too much—he dared to detain government officials from conducting impact studies,” Hun Sen said, comparing the incident to an act of insurrection by Gonzalez-Davidson and Mother Nature.
“If you want to establish an autonomous zone, please go ahead. I will deploy BM21 [rocket launchers]. I will attack you because we just upgraded to new versions of BM21s.”
Gonzalez-Davidson told RFA at the time that villagers set up the road block after receiving information Chinese experts and officials were traveling to the province to conduct studies on the impact of the dam, adding they did not believe the studies would be conducted fairly.
Hun Sen on Tuesday also reiterated a promise he made to opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy in October last year that he would let a “younger generation” of leaders decide on the fate of the Chhay Areng dam.
“Regardless of any studies conducted from now until [my term ends in] 2018, there will be no dam construction,” he said of the U.S. $400 million project, to be built by Chinese construction and engineering giant Sinohydro Corporation.
“I don’t want to see the younger generation deal with problems from the dam. I want to inform you that I am mindful of the difference between economic benefits and environmental impacts.”
The prime minister called for further impact studies of the dam project and pledged to preserve the Areng Valley in Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains, where the dam site is located.
The 108-megawatt dam is backed by ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) lawmaker Lao Meng Khin and his wife, who have evicted thousands of families from land around the country.
Gonzalez-Davidson’s supporters in the Cambodia NGO community say the dam would force more than 300 ethnic minority families off of their ancestral land and would destroy the habitat of endangered animals.
Mother Nature coordinator Meng Heng told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia’s youth would continue the fight to protect the Areng Valley, with or without Gonzalez-Davidson.
“For environmentalists, Hun Sen’s speech [about protecting Cambodia’s natural resources] is a kind of encouragement, but we will continue to preserve Areng because we want keep that area for the younger generations,” he said.
Speaking from Thailand, Gonzalez-Davidson welcomed Hun Sen’s pledge to protect Areng and hold off construction of the dam “if what he said was genuine,” but expressed doubt the central government could control local authorities who regularly benefit from companies that exploit natural resources.
He also expressed concerns about the staff of Mother Nature who he said face risks operating inside Cambodia.
“I am very concerned for their safety,” he told RFA, adding that he had been unjustly deported, and promising to return “soon, because Cambodia is my country.”
“This was a big mistake by the government—I am not a traitor or a drug lord. I love Cambodians and was helping to protect the forest from destruction,” he said.
“The government’s move to deport me will affect its reputation.”
In the meantime, he said, he would continue to work remotely with the youth of Areng to protect the area, adding that his presence in Cambodia was less important than the continuation of Mother Nature’s work.
Call for protection
Also on Tuesday, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) released a statement calling on the government to ensure the protection of the country’s rights campaigners and environmental activists, in light of Gonzalez-Davidson’s deportation.
“The Royal Government of Cambodia must ensure that human rights and environmental activists are able to carry out their work free from threats, acts of intimidation or attacks, and that the arrest of Gonzalez-Davidson is not used as a pretext to pressure local communities in the Areng Valley over the construction of the Chhay Areng dam,” the group said.
“CCHR reiterates that the Cambodian Constitution and binding international treaties to which Cambodia is a party, guarantee the right to freedom of expression … as well as the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.”
The group said the government’s decision not to renew Gonzalez-Davidson’s visa was “widely seen as a retaliatory measure” following Mother Nature’s campaign against the construction of the Chhay Areng hydropower dam.
It expressed concern that other members of Mother Nature based in Koh Kong will be “subjected to close control by the authorities, and that their actions could be arbitrarily restricted.”
Reported by Tep Soravy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.