Authorities in Koh Kong province on Wednesday briefly stopped environmental activists as they were cycling from Koh Kong to Phnom Penh in a campaign to have Koh Kong Krao island designated as a protected area.
After seizing the activists’ bicycles, deputy provincial governor Sok Sothy said that “gathering and marching at any place” required prior permission, like in “every country.” The Environment Ministry issued a statement that the campaigners were playing a “political trick.”
Eighteen activists, including members of the Mother Nature environmental group, embarked on a five-day journey on Tuesday to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet asking to have the island protected. The campaigners said they were concerned about potential environmental destruction.
Nguon Vedtey, one of the riders, said police officers had stopped the group in Koh Kong district on Wednesday and asked that they submit their petition to district authorities instead. They were taken to the Trapaing Rong commune health center, ostensibly to test their temperature for fever, she said.
“Authorities didn’t test our body temperature; they wanted us to submit the petition to the district level, and they would forward that petition to Hun Sen’s cabinet,” Vedtey, 23, said.
The officers also asked the activists to thumb-print a statement to attest that they had refused to hand over their petition.
“We declined to give them our thumbprints and we left the center to continue our journey,” Vedtey said. However, police seized their bicycles when they attempted to continue.
The authorities’ actions amounted to “intimidation,” Vedtey said.
“There is no law banning us from cycling,” she said. It was a “restriction of our freedoms and rights, especially impacting our rights as the young generation, so we can’t participate in helping society.… Our purpose is wanting to preserve the island’s potential and make it an ecotourism site.”
Koh Kong deputy provincial governor Sok Sothy denied that the police stop had amounted to a detention, saying the activists had simply been told to seek permission for their cycling trip.
“They are a group of Mother Nature [activists]. They were conducting a bicycling campaign without permission from authorities,” he said. “It is not a restriction of their rights as they have suggested. In every county they would need to get permission from authorities for gathering and marching at any place.”
The authorities had taken the activists’ bicycles to the Koh Kong district police station, and would return them if the campaigners followed instructions and sought permission from officials, Sothy said.
The Environment Ministry on Wednesday issued a statement saying it regretted that a small group had come out pretending to be environmental defenders.
“It is just a pretext to hide their political trick, which regularly has manipulation underneath,” it said.
It questioned the campaigners’ goal to have Koh Kong Krao designated for protection, since the ministry had already been studying the situation since 2011 and planned to make it a protected marine area by 2021.
Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun, who attended the cycling campaign’s first day, said activism of all forms was facing increasing restrictions.
“We are now seeing that freedom of expression is limited in Cambodia, and its space becomes smaller and smaller,” he said. “We are sorrowed that authorities used police forces to prevent bicycling in public undertaken to protect natural resources.”
Koh Kong authorities should welcome the desire among the young activists to save Cambodia’s remaining natural resources, he said.
“It is a good thing that youth are active in society.”