Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Khmer Thavrak Registers With Interior Ministry, Plans New Approach To Resolve Issues

A picture showing Khmer Thavrak activists (from left), Sokun Tola, Svay Samnang, Chhoeun Daravy, Chhem Sreykea and Hun Vannak, outside the Bati district police station in Takeo province on August 16, 2022, the day four of them except Samnang were detained for questioning. (Licadho/Sok Raksmey)
A picture showing Khmer Thavrak activists (from left), Sokun Tola, Svay Samnang, Chhoeun Daravy, Chhem Sreykea and Hun Vannak, outside the Bati district police station in Takeo province on August 16, 2022, the day four of them except Samnang were detained for questioning. (Licadho/Sok Raksmey)

Khmer Thavrak run by a group of youths has been at the forefront of raising human rights concerns in Cambodia. Recently, they registered as a non-profit organization with the Ministry of Interior to develop a better community, and eliminate illegal logging and wildlife crimes.

On Monday, Khmer Thavrak posted on Facebook that it was an official non-profit organization now. In its announcement, it mentioned that “part of the forest crime is caused by poor communities with no clear source of income, forcing them to break the law to destroy natural resources”.

The group mainly focused on development in the community to ensure better standards and reduce or eliminate illegal logging and animal hunting, said its president Chhoeun Daravy, adding that the organization has five members, including a deputy president and three others.

Daravy takes over the helm from her husband and Khmer Thavrak co-founder Hun Vannak, who resigned in February 2023, to make way for a new batch of youths to lead the organization.

The organization will restart its project first at Areng, followed by Prey Lang. Daravy observed that the people in the Areng still do not have a clear source of income and cut down trees to sell to traders, which is illegal.

To resolve the issue, Khmer Thavrak participates in the development of the community so that people have jobs to earn a living and conserve forests as well.

“We see that crime will exist unless the community has a clear source of income, which is still lacking, and traders [continue] contacting them in the forest to cut [trees], even though they know it is illegal. So, they violate the law in order to survive,” said Daravy.

Communication, negotiation to solve problems

She stressed that Khmer Thavrak is not aligned with the government or any political group, but is an organization that works centrally to serve the public interest and seeks solutions from all parties for the benefit of the community through peaceful negotiations.

“Our principles are not biased and inconsistent,” Daravy said. “We do this to help the community and resolve their problems. We will be around and try our best to help find solutions.” 

She stated that the youths who joined Khmer Thavrak are young people who are active in social issues. “The new way of advocating for a better community is not the same as before where we stood in the middle. We won’t be against [the government] to cause the same problems but to negotiate a solution for the community.” 

“In previous activities, we were doing serious advocacy and it was challenging,” Daravy said. “That way was not profitable, but when we communicate, a solution is possible. We have asked Samdech for a solution. Even if some cases can’t be resolved but can only be solved if specific terms [are included] for the community, only discussion in a peaceful manner rather than as enemies [can work].” 

Daravy and her Khmer Thavrak team including five VOD reporters were detained in mid-August 2022 for flying a drone without authorization and posting it live on Facebook. The drone “illegally” entered a “prohibited area” in the freshly cleared Phnom Tamao forest.

Following the registration, co-founder and environmentalist Hun Vannak said he no longer holds any position in the organization but will offer his help based on his experience.

“Like what I told my wife [Daravy], Khmer Thavrak cannot operate like before when our group of activists mostly disagreed with the government 100 percent but now we understand [the situation] and want to change our approach. We sometimes need to cooperate with the government also,” Vannak explained.

‘Has opposing ideas’

Mot Kimry, a deputy president of Khmer Thavrak told CamboJA that he hoped to see the benefits of the development to the community and the government, as Khmer Thavrak valued the importance of communication to find solutions rather than “push each other”.

“We are not giving up helping the community but this time we engage with the authority, environmental and legal experts to resolve community issues. We’ll cooperate with all stakeholders because we think only communication is the [right] strategy to benefit and [ensure] real development [for the community],” said Kimry.

Kimry urged youths who used to work on environmental issues to support or join Khmer Thavrak because the movement is actually developing and helping the community, rather than criticizing the leadership or authorities.

“We change from criticizing but participating together. This is what I am encouraging the youths; to get involved as there isn’t any country that has the best justice system, anti-corruption or​ good democratic practices,” said Kimry.

Chhem Sreykea, 23, who used to be part of Khmer Thavrak told CamboJA News that she does not have any relationship or work with the organization anymore as their “perspectives were different” now.

“I’m not with Khmer Thavrak anymore. I left a year ago as we have opposing ideas and I want to focus on my studies,” said Sreykea.

Noting that she was surprised with the registration of Khmer Thavrak as a non-profit organization, she however, hoped that the organization will stand for people and help communities. It would be great if the organization stood independently, she added.

Question of independence

Cambodian Youth Network project coordinating officer Out Latin congratulated Khmer Thavrak’s official registration but dared not conclude the extent of the organization’s independence.

Based on Latin’s observation of Khmer Thavrak in the past, the organization has participated in social work and development to ensure a society prospers while protecting natural resources.

“On the practical implementation of the organization’s trends, we will continue to monitor how Khmer Thavrak [responds to issues] when it operates again,” he said.

Pa Chanroeun, president of Cambodian Institute for Democracy, lauded the organization’s registration and the resumption of its operations.

That being said, Khmer Thavrak’s level of independence depends on the outcome of its work. “It will depend on who leads the work in the future. We will see.”

“It is good; as long as there are efforts to solve problems in the society in line with the organization’s mission [and] helps nation development,” he said.