Twenty-five members of a youth group who are marking World Environment Day with a 600-kilometer cycling campaign, say that although local authorities allowed the event to go ahead they were questioned and monitored, which some took as a form of intimidation.
The campaign, which started on May 10 and ends on Friday, saw the cyclists ride all the way from Kampong Thom to Preah Vihear province. In each commune along the way, through four provinces, the participants say they were stopped by authorities who questioned them about their activities and camped out with them overnight.
Authorities say their interest was only intended to keep the cyclists safe on their journey, but one of the campaigners, Out Latin, a project coordinator with the advocacy group Cambodian Youth Network, said their interest meant the activists hadn’t been able to speak freely.
“I think it is a challenge that the authorities always come to interrogate and sleep with us under the pretext of security. What the authorities are doing is hurting our ability to debate on social issues and make our next plan.”
However, he noted that in the past, authorities have been more interfering, even stopping village meetings. This time they were allowed to go ahead, he believes, because they don’t want trouble ahead of the commune elections next month.
After the youths arrived in Preah Vihear, city authorities led by Deputy Governor Khiev Ban and accompanied by about 10 plainclothes police officers came to inquire about their activities, took down their names, and took photos. In Promer commune, Tbeng Meanchey district, police did the same.
Latin said they asked where the group had got its funding for the campaign, which mainly came from civil society organizations abroad. The campaign was meant to promote forest conservation, he said, and teach communities to protect natural resources.
“Through this campaign, we are demanding that the government, especially the Ministry of Environment, allow local communities to participate in protecting the last remaining natural resources, such as in Prey Lang and Prey Preah Roka,” he said.
San Mala, another member of the Cambodian Youth Network who took part in the event, said he didn’t think the real reason the authorities monitored the cyclists activity was in order to guarantee their safety. Instead, he said he thought it was a way of monitoring them.
“The authorities there have said that their actions are only for the safety and security of the youth,” he told CamboJA. “Especially at our rest stops, the authorities always sent police and village security to guard the youth group.”
However, he noted that in the past it’s been very difficult for youth to pass through protected forest areas, but this time it was easy. He thinks the authorities facilitated this because the government doesn’t want trouble ahead of elections, and also because the ASEAN Summit was being held in the US at the same time and they didn’t want negative press.
Mala said he hoped the campaign would encourage the Ministry of Environment to allow citizens to participate in forest protection, because in Prey Lang in the past well-known environmental activists have been arrested for organizing patrols against illegal logging.
“In the last two years, authorities, especially officials from the Ministry of Environment, have been restricting communities and civil society organizations from working in forest areas… The absence of environmental activists monitoring or patrolling has resulted in a major surge in deforestation,” he said.
“There may be collusion between local authorities and traders,” he added.
Koet Saray, president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (KSILA), said some authorities seemed pleased to see youth and civil society campaigning for environmental protection, and that they were mainly allowed to conduct their campaign unhindered. However he said, despite the group having widely publicized the event in the press, the authorities hadn’t been aware of it or what was about.
During their 600 km cycle, the group saw several deforested sites in Prey Lang forest in Kratie and Kampong Thom, according to Out Latin, each ranging between 5 and 50 hectares.
Sar Seng Leang, deputy chief of Achen village, Kampong Cham commune, Sambor district, Kratie province, said that as a village authority, it was his duty to welcome and protect the cyclists passing through and that he welcomed the environmental advocacy campaign..
Khiev Ban, Deputy Governor of Preah Vihear City, agreed that the cycling campaign was a good way of making people aware of environmental issues. He told CamboJA that the authorities only questioned the participants so they knew which direction they were going and could protect them.