Nearly a week after Thy Sovantha addressed Prime Minister Hun Sen during a rare audience with forest activists, videos circulating with her comments have the social media celebrity in hot water with those communities.
While numerous groups walked away disappointed with their lack of microphone time, Sovantha, who the premier dotingly referred to as “granddaughter”, spent nearly 30 minutes speaking, at one point insisting small-scale logging committed by villagers was now the real problem.
However, activists from the endangered Prey Lang forest along with environmentalists from Koh Kong and Kampong Thom provinces took umbrage with that over the weekend.
“The companies are the ones destroying forests in Cambodia,” said Koh Kong forest activist Chheuy Odom Reaksmey, son of slain environmentalist Chut Wutty and one of several to post angry rebuttals on Facebook.
“The big companies use a broker and the broker gives money to the villagers to cut down trees. If there were no companies, the villagers wouldn’t be logging.”
Meanwhile, Heoun Sopheap, a member of the Prey Lang Community Network’s steering committee, said that Sovantha’s comments were meant to bolster her image as a pro-government political figure.
“Now that she is supporting the ruling party, she is blaming the villagers for logging [instead of companies],” said Sopheap, adding that private companies often participate in illegal logging after being given land through government-sanctioned economic land concessions. “The companies are dangerous, not the villagers.”
But attendees at last week’s forum said Sovantha’s comments were broadly in line with those of others in the relatively small group allowed to speak, many of whom also blamed local communities for the problem.
“The dominant narrative at the forum was that local people are responsible for widespread illegal logging. I didn’t hear anyone mentioning the involvement of people within the elite and how corruption plays a significant role in the logging business,” said Ernst Jurgenson, Cambodia representative for NGO Danmission, who attended the event. “Evidence suggests that local people are hired by middle men. But no one discussed who hires the middle man,” he added.
Sovantha declined to comment but pointed reporters to her Facebook page. “I said residents are involved in logging . . . that local authorities are also involved in logging . . . and I suggested that the prime minister build a road to the Areng area so it can be used for tourism,” she wrote in a post yesterday. “The prime minister agreed with me, so people should praise me, not blame me for making a point.”