About 100 security officers were deployed in the capital’s Meanchey district yesterday to stop a bicycle ride involving only about 30 environmentalists, some of whom were dressed as animals.
Before many of the young activists had arrived at the office of NGO Mother Nature, which organised the ride to raise awareness about a planned hydropower dam in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley, police and district security guards had gathered on either side of the office gates.
When a truck carrying bikes for the activists arrived outside the Mother Nature office at about 2pm, police instructed the driver to take the bikes to the local police station, where they were impounded.
After activists gathered together on other bikes outside, a bizarre standoff with the security forces ensued, as activists dressed as animals posed for photos in front of the helmeted district security guards.
Heng Samnang, a youth member of Mother Nature, said the authorities had already banned the group from riding on Saturday and had issued warnings that they would be arrested if they continued to organise bike rides.
“The commune authorities surrounded the office yesterday as well. They said that they would arrest us if we kept trying to ride our bikes around town for the Areng Valley,” he said.
At about 4pm, after several attempts to negotiate with the security forces to stand down and allow the riders to pass, the activists retreated indoors, and the police began to disperse without incident.
The planned Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam has come up against staunch opposition from residents of the valley, activists and experts.
Late last year, Chinese mega-firm Sinohydro took over from the previous contractor, China Guodian, to assess the area and determine whether it would push ahead with the construction of the dam.
Since mid-March, villagers in the Areng Valley and their supporters have blocked an access road in an attempt to stop Sinohydro bringing in machinery and workers.
In the five months the villagers have blocked the road, numerous attempts have been made by company representatives and officials to enter the valley.
“It’s just a show of force,” said Mother Nature founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, who spoke at length with the police during the stand-off yesterday to diffuse any potential tensions.
“Areng is recognised by UNESCO, so it belongs to all Cambodians and the people in this world. We cannot stop protesting until we win because the Chinese company, Sinohydro, plans to build the hydropower dam, which will affect the valley’s natural resources,” he explained. “There are at least 31 endangered species in the area and it’s the last strong forest in the country.”
The Areng Valley at the edge of the Cardamom Mountain range is home to endangered Siamese crocodiles and a large wild elephant population, as well as numerous other vulnerable species.
The Mother Nature event followed separate protests in the capital last week that were mostly free of the security presence that public demonstrations have attracted this year.
Hak Chanleang, Meanchey district deputy governor, said the authorities had blocked yesterday’s ride because the activists had not identified what route they planned to take or filled out the proper paperwork.
“If they want to protect the environment, we ask that they apply for permission from Phnom Penh Municipal Hall and I believe City Hall will allow them, but they have not asked for permission,” he said.
However, Mother Nature representatives said they informed City Hall of their plans in line with the requirements in the Law on Demonstrations.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche claimed the activists would be allowed to hold a protest in the future.
“We will allow them to hold demonstrations, but protocols should be followed because we need to prepare many things for them, such as security and public order. But the most important thing is that they did not follow the rules at all,” he said.
But Am Sam Ath, technical adviser for Licadho, said the activists did not have to apply for permission from the authorities under the demonstrations law.
“All they have to do is inform the authorities five days in advance,” he said.
Mu Sochua, an opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker, decried yesterday’s show of force by the authorities.
“I have nothing but regrets to see that the government continues to reject the right of the people to participate in development, especially in preserving the environment,” she said.
“All the factors of the militarisation of the police force … for the so-called protection of the people, it’s alarming and unacceptable. It’s going to lead to more violence and injustice for people who are only trying to express their rights.”