Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday threatened to cut off electricity from the homes of “environmental extremists” who oppose development projects in the country, drawing condemnation from critics who said his government should focus on sustainability and providing services to the people.
Speaking at the inauguration of the 246-megawatt Steung Tatay hydropower dam in southwestern Cambodia’s Koh Kong province, Hun Sen questioned why environmental activists would want to jeopardize the development of the nation over “a few thousand hectares” of land and forest.
“Do we dare to sacrifice a few thousands hectares [1 hectare = 2.5 acres] in order to serve the nation’s people, [and in exchange for] creating jobs for tens of thousands—or even millions—of people” he asked.
“Because we have a number of environmental extremists who always oppose things—whatever it is [we do]. So, there is only one way: let’s make traditional fire torches for all the homes of those extremists and cut off electricity from their residences.”
Hun Sen’s threat came amid the ongoing construction of several hydroelectric dams in various regions of Cambodia—which relies heavily on power purchased from neighboring countries like Vietnam. The projects have led to the displacement of communities, as well as disputes over land and resources.
It also followed recent moves by his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to oust senior opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) figures from their posts in parliament, together with physical assaults launched against CNRP lawmakers, which have created a tense political climate in the country.
Nongovernmental organizations and members of the opposition on Wednesday slammed the prime minister for dismissing the concerns of environmental activists and said he has no right to choose who has access to services in Cambodia.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen was discriminating against the country’s environmental activists and should be encouraging them, rather than threatening them.
“People have mixed reactions to development and that is simply their opinion,” he said.
“We shouldn’t discriminate against them by saying who can and cannot use electricity.”
President of the NGO Forum Tek Vannara, who monitors environmental projects and campaigns in Cambodia, told RFA that the government’s role is to ensure a steady supply of electricity for all Cambodians without bias.
“I won’t speculate on [his] opinion, but he needs to understand that the government is leading the people, so it has to do a good job of providing services to them,” he said.
Tek Vannara added that the government routinely fails to release impact assessments of hydroelectric dam projects, despite findings by civil society groups which suggest they will have negative effects on society and the environment.
Seven foreign-invested hydropower dams—most of which are backed by China—are under construction in provinces including Koh Kong, Kampong Speu, Pursat and Stung Treng, and senior government officials have said at least 17 other sites are being studied for potential impact.
Civil society groups say construction of the 400-megawatt Lower Sesan 2 hydropower dam in Stung Treng is affecting hundreds of families in the area, who have held recurring protests against the project and recently held a ceremony to curse the dam’s investors.
Hun Sen’s government has targeted environmental activists before, including in February, when authorities refused to renew the visa of Spaniard Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson and expelled him from Cambodia.
The co-founder of the environmental watchdog group Mother Nature had led a campaign against the controversial Chhay Areng hydropower dam project in Koh Kong province.
The 108-megawatt dam is backed by 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.
Reported by Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Pagnawath Khun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.