Authorities in Cambodia on Thursday briefly detained three activists who protested in front of parliament, and a local rights group official who monitored the demonstration, calling on the government to stop a Vietnamese sand dredging company from polluting the environment in Koh Kong province.
Around 100 officers from the Chamkar Mon district in the capital Phnom Penh arrested the three activists from local environmental watchdog Mother Nature Cambodia after they picketed outside the National Assembly (parliament) building demanding authorities act against the firm International Rainbow.
Y Soksan of local rights group Adhoc—whose official was also taken into custody while monitoring the protest—told RFA’s Khmer Service that the police officers “abused the rights” of the activists, who had demonstrated “for the sake of the country.”
“This is human rights abuse—the activists petitioned the National Assembly with good intentions,” he said, adding that the authorities “should have provided them with security during the protest instead of arresting them.”
Chamkar Mon deputy district governor Chhor Kimsor told RFA police arrested the activists because they “disrupted traffic.”
“They didn’t inform the authorities in advance,” he added.
Authorities later released the Adhoc official along with the three activists, who were made to sign and thumbprint a document stating that they would inform local authorities before petitioning the National Assembly in the future.
Mother Nature Cambodia has accused International Rainbow of polluting the environment and negatively impacting the lives of thousands of families in Koh Kong for years.
In April, villagers from Koh Kong’s Koh Kapi commune petitioned the National Assembly’s Environment Commission to raise in parliament an ongoing dispute over sand dredging, weeks after Mother Nature began protests against International Rainbow, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
Community representatives called on Commission Chairman Pol Ham, an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker, to intervene against the company, saying the dredging was affecting the environment, biodiversity and fisheries.
Earlier, a letter was sent to Koh Kong Provincial Hall urging the authorities to expel Mother Nature from the area, though the group has claimed the letter was the product of a campaign by the company to hinder their work.
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a founder of Mother Nature who was deported from Cambodia in February after the authorities refused to renew his visa, told the Post at the time that International Rainbow’s operations were “a crime against nature and a serious human rights violation.”
“On top of that, it is all outright illegal, not just the dredgers operating without a ‘license’, but even those with one, as there never was in the first place any serious study on the environmental and social impacts of this practice.”
About 20 companies in Cambodia have licenses allowing them to legally dredge in the country, though their permits will expire in December, according to the Ministry of Mines and Energy.
The ministry began to issue sand-dredging licenses in 2006, but many companies operate illegally without them.
In April, the ministry said it would not renew operating licenses for dredging companies with expired permits until the completion of an industry-wide impact study to ensure all companies operate sustainably, and urged operators to wait between three and six months for the end of the assessment.
Reported by Um Raingsy for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.