Phnom Penh authorities shut down a demonstration on June 22 held by a group of activists from environmental NGO Mother Nature to raise awareness of a new development slated for Koh Kong Krao island, representatives of the group said this week.
On the evening of June 22, about 10 members of the Mother Nature had set up photos showing the scenery of Koh Kong Krao island in a public space in front of Wat Botum pagoda in Phnom Penh, but were disrupted by security guards.
Kim Vutha, a chief Daun Penh district security guard, led a team of his officers to intervene in the photo display, in an incident that was streamed on Facebook live by Mother Nature members. In the video, a district security guard can be heard telling the activists that they “have no permission from Phnom Penh City,” for the demonstration.
“Why did you restrict my rights to post this on Facebook live?” Mother Nature member Keo Reaksmey says in the video she posted to social media, which showed guards pushing the activists.
“We came here wanting to display the photos showing the scenery of Koh Kong Krao, as well as share information on eco-tourism sites,” she says in the video.
One security guard who can be seen in the video wearing a blue civilian shirt and who declined to provide his name to Reaksmey ordered the activists to take down the photo display and stop their live stream.
“Did you receive permission to display the pictures?” The plain-clothes guard asks.
“You are not allowed to rally, and as we already know, you need permission from Phnom Penh City Hall,” he continues. “Stop using Facebook live right now!”
Another member of the conservation NGO who attended the event, Long Kunthea, said in an interview on June 23 that she was disappointed that district security guards had intervened in their peaceful demonstration.
“We laid down the pictures on the ground and we took to Facebook live to disseminate the photos,” Kunthea said. “People walking by who wanted to take a photo next to our display were banned from doing so and the security guards shooed them away.”
“I think this restricts our right to freedom of expression and intimidates youth who want to spread information to help protect natural resources,” she said. “I hope the authorities will change their attitude and not act beyond the law by saying that we were wrong not to ask permission.”
She added that according to Article 3, Paragraph 3 of the law on peaceful demonstration, all peaceful gatherings for the purpose of educational activities related to public interests do not require permission from authorities.
However, Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey emphasized that all gatherings in public places require permission from authorities.
“It is not restricting the right to freedom of speech, but it is directing the rights of an individual or group to be used properly so that it does not affect the rights of others,” he said.
“I won’t give details on that issue,” he said, when asked whether streaming video on Facebook live from a public place was in violation of the law. “But all kinds of groups that are assembling or holding banners have to inform and hold prior consultation with the authorities before doing this.”
Mother Nature’s Kunthea called on the government to revoke the license it had given to the private company Koh Kong SEZ Co, Ltd, which is owned by tycoon Ly Yong Phat.
“As we have seen before in Cambodia, when the government gives development rights to a private company, the natural resources are destroyed with little benefit to the local community,” she said.
The government awarded Koh Kong SEZ the right to develop the island on June 14, 2019, and on June 6 this year, Prime Minister Hun Sen created a committee chaired by Environment Minister Say Sam Al to inspect the site ahead of development.
Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra declined to comment when asked about details of the project this week.
Soeung Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said that the authorities should direct their efforts to supporting young people campaigning to preserve natural resources instead of infringing on their right to expression.
“It is restricting the freedom of expression of those youths who have carried out a peaceful campaign that the authorities disrupted,” he said.
“If we’re talking about freedom of speech, they are not breaking the law because they are just expressing their disapproval and raising their requests to the government,” Senkaruna added.
Authorities had thwarted another demonstration to draw awareness to the Koh Kong Krao development earlier this month when they stopped a group of environmental activists who were cycling from Koh Kong province to Phnom Penh.
Eighteen demonstrators, including Mother Nature members, had embarked on a five-day journey to deliver a petition to the prime minister’s cabinet asking for Koh Kong Krao to be designated as protected land.
After seizing the activists’ bicycles, Koh Kong Deputy Provincial Governor Sok Sothy said that “gathering and marching at any place” requires prior permission just like in “every country”.