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Activist ‘thorn in govt’s side’

As opposition grew yesterday over plans to remove Areng dam activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson from the country when his visa expires later this week, analysts said the government was hoping to clear the way to develop the valley.

With studies for the controversial hydropower dam close to completion, Ear Sophal, author of Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy>, said the authorities want the Spanish national “out of the way so they can proceed” with the project.

“Ultimately, it will have to be the people of Areng Valley who will have to step-up; it’s their land,” he said.

Community representative Ven Vorn said villagers would protest the deportation.

“It is not good at all for people who are affected in that area because Alex is a strong man who helps us resist the authorities who want to destroy our natural resources,” he said. “Cambodia has a lot of foreigners; why do they only have a problem with Alex?”

Gonzalez-Davidson will be the first foreign NGO worker to be effectively kicked out of Cambodia since Global Witness staff were barred from entering the country in 2005.

The authorities maintain that he will be allowed to re-apply for a visa if he leaves “voluntarily”. Otherwise, he will be deported and banned from returning.

Independent analyst Ou Virak said Gonzalez-Davidson’s “confrontational approach” was the reason for the move.

“Alex is a thorn in their side and they want to get him out,” he said. “I think after Alex is gone [local activists] might be a bit more afraid to continue their work at a similar level.”

In October, opposition leader Sam Rainsy said Prime Minister Hun Sen had assured him the dam would be “left for future generations”. But a letter from the premier last month touted the environmental benefits of the project, and said it was still on the agenda.

Rainsy yesterday dubbed the decision not to renew Gonzalez-Davidson’s visa “unfair and inappropriate”.

But Gonzalez-Davidson said the threat would not hinder Mother Nature’s efforts. “It will backfire on them [if I’m forced to leave].… There will definitely be an impact, but not necessarily a negative impact [on our work],” he said, adding that protests were planned for in the coming days.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MAY TITTHARA

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