Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Environmental Activists Align with Government, Launch New Mother Nature NGO

A big tree has been cut along the bank of the Areng river in Koh Kong’s Thmor Bang district, in Bralay commune. Picture taken on 28 March 2022. CamboJA/ Sovann Sreypich
A big tree has been cut along the bank of the Areng river in Koh Kong’s Thmor Bang district, in Bralay commune. Picture taken on 28 March 2022. CamboJA/ Sovann Sreypich

A former member of the prominent environmental group Mother Nature apologized to the government, denounced his former organization and announced he would start a new NGO with the same name in a video on February 28.

The activist Meng Heng’s shift from outspoken to apologetic made him one of several high profile activists to publicly align themselves with the government in recent months or else step away from their advocacy roles. Former activist colleagues and political analysts say this is a government strategy to silence criticism in the run-up to the July 23 national election.

In another abrupt transition, Hun Vannak, the co-founder of youth activist group Khmer Thavarak announced in a February 22 Facebook post that he was resigning from his position and would have no further involvement from the group. 

“[I] decided to leave the group from today onward, because I want to give an opportunity to the young generation that can lead social work,” said Vannak, 41, in the post. He declined to comment further to CamboJA..

Meanwhile, the well-known twin brother activist duo Chum Hout and Chum Hour, took jobs with the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in January.

In a March 1 speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen said people should not criticize activists who decide to join the ruling party, adding that all other activists were “foreign slaves” accepting money to tarnish Cambodia’s image. 

Heng also defended his decision and attacked his former advocacy group. 

“The reason I participated [with Mother Nature] in the past was because I did not fully carry out social activities according to my abilities and did not deeply understand the Royal Government’s environmental protection policy, which is why I did social activities contrary to the law,” Heng said in a video clip published by government-aligned media Fresh News.

Meng Heng, a former Mother Nature activist, apologizes to the government and announces he will start a new NGO also called Mother Nature, in a video published by government-aligned media Fresh News on February 28, 2023. (Fresh News)

Heng said Mother Nature co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson had been trying to overthrow the government, echoing the government’s previous accusations against arrested activists from the group.

“Some people have tricked under the pretext of protecting the environment to create a color revolution to overthrow the government and disgraced the government’s reputation,” Heng said.

He then declared he would be starting a new environment organization called Mother Nature and urged people who cared about protecting natural resources to join him. 

The original Mother Nature was deregistered as an NGO by the Ministry of Interior in 2017 but has remained active in Cambodia even as its members have been forced to conceal their identities in public advocacy videos widely viewed on social media. 

Heng had left Mother Nature several years before and was not a co-founder of the organization as he had been portrayed in government-aligned media, according to Gonzalez-Davidson.

He said Heng and other activists who publicly declared allegiance to the government had already “lost all credibility as environmental activists.” 

“I wouldn’t exactly call it switching sides,” said Gonzalez-Davidson, deported from Cambodia in 2015 due to his advocacy. “Just a bunch of desperate people whom the regime has tricked into fulfilling a small role for a little while, and who will become irrelevant once more in the near future.”

Environmental activist Phoun Keoreaksmey, who was given an 18-month prison sentence for her work at Mother Nature in 2021, said that the new Mother Nature organization started by Heng was an attempt to undermine the existing advocacy group and mislead the public. But she believed the strategy would be ineffective as the original group already had a devoted following. She added that the goal of environmental activism in general was to raise awareness and seek solutions.

“We only talk about [environmental] issues and show what people want [solutions] from the government, we still remain the same and keep doing our work, no one in our team changes their mind,” Reaksmey said.

Heng Kimhong, director of the research and advocacy program at the Cambodian Youth Network, says activists can change their political beliefs and affiliations.

“The case of young people joining the government, they can join to get power or wealth in the government or for their favorite political party,” he said. “I see it is their right and their freedom.

Kimhong said it was not the first time activists critical of the government’s environmental policies had changed their opinions drastically, but said he remained confident more young people would step in to continue carrying out environmental advocacy.

“In my values, I have never considered myself a thing that sells at the market, if any person or any group comes to buy my conscience through money, I won’t [accept],” he said.

Twin brothers Chum Huot and Chou Hour were awarded roles as deputy directors of the Ministry of Post and Telecommunications in January.

They had previously been active campaigners for justice in the murder of the famed political analyst Kem Ley and had protested hydroelectric dams in the past. They fled to Thailand in 2016 after speaking to the media about the assassination of Kem Ley, whom they had met with just days before.

They joined the now-defunct Cambodia National Love Party which did not manage to win a single seat in the commune elections last year.

 “We are facing a difficult livelihood, and I was also blacklisted, meaning that I cannot go anywhere and even when I joined with a political party I was under surveillance,” Hout said. “Now after we have joined the [government] our freedoms have opened up, we have rights to express our opinions and we can do activities and advocate for environmental issues.”

Huot denied the government had provided any financial incentives to him or his brother, besides their job offers, which he said would allow the two to contribute to the nation’s development.

“When we looked back at what the government has done to really develop the nation, we decided to join with the government,” Huot said. “We will take our skill and experiences to work at the ministry”. 

He said they will work closely with the Ministry of Environment to focus on reducing plastics.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said that anyone has freedom to choose their political affiliation but absorbing well-known activists into the government was a political strategy to resolve a thorn in the government’s side by provoking one group to fight with another, while silencing previously critical voices. 

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan and ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan did not respond to requests for comment.

Hun Sen defended the decisions’ of activists who chose to join the government.

“If people supported the opposition party, you are considered a good person, but for people who come to support the Royal Government, you are seen as selling all ideals,” Hun Sen said in his March 1 speech. “All of you do not respect the political freedom of these young people. They know that supporting the opposition was useless in the past.”