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Call to preserve Prey Lang

Villagers from four provinces protested in the capital yesterday and handed officials a petition signed by more than 30,000 people opposed to land concessions in the Prey Lang forest, as activist and monk Loun Savath narrowly escaped arrest at the event.

About 200 villagers from Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear, Kratie and Stung Treng gathered at the government’s designated protest zone, Freedom Park, to express concern over concessions in a forest they say is essential to their livelihoods. Activists waved banners, sang songs and marched, but perhaps most notable was their attire: green shirts, banana leaf hats and forest-green paint on their faces.

Som Lach, a 41-year-old man from Preah Vihear’s Chey Sen district, said the decorative wear was a demonstration of their solidarity with a natural resource under threat.

“Nature cannot speak out, and we are dependent on natural resources, so we have to speak out on its behalf,” he said.

Protest leaders submitted a petition to the prime minister’s cabinet, the National Assembly, provincial authorities and three government ministries yesterday calling for an end to all concessions in the 3,600- square-kilometre forest.

The petition also calls for the government to rescind permits that have already been given to companies to log the forest, to stop the clearance of land and to allow logged areas to regrow.

Hean Bunhieng, a project officer at NGO Forum, said activists had collected about 30,000 signatures in just one month and would continue to seek more.

While the government has argued that concessions to rubber companies such as Vietnam’s CRCK will generate jobs, 33 year-old Oeun At of Chey Sen district said yesterday that the 12,000-riel (US$2.96) daily salary offered for such work was not a living wage.

“We need to plant rice and farm by ourselves, so the government should withdraw all the licences given to companies and give the rights back to the community,” she said.

Loun Savath, who has been living in hiding in recent weeks out of fear of arrest in retaliation for his activism in land disputes, came to show support for the Prey Lang campaign yesterday.

“Even though the authorities are trying to arrest me, I am not worried because I have done no wrong,” he said. “If they are still trying to arrest me, it is their problem.”

Shortly afterwards, he was forced to flee the scene with the assistance of rights groups when it appeared that local authorities were planning his arrest.

Several villagers facing eviction from Boeung Kak lake also attended, but did not hold their own rally out of fear that authorities would cancel talks with city authorities on their dispute slated for Friday.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THOMAS MILLER

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