Prime Minister Hun Sen has jibed that he could deploy military hardware should anyone try and create an “autonomous zone” in the Areng Valley, where activists are bitterly fighting a proposed dam.
In a speech on Tuesday, the premier also took aim at Areng Valley activist Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported yesterday, condemning him for organising road blocks to stop companies from entering the area.
“If you want to make an autonomous zone [in Areng], please come, and we will put BM21 [multiple rocket launcher vehicles] in that area, but I don’t accuse them seriously like that,” Hun Sen said, before attacking Areng activists for obstructing company officials.
However, the premier also publicly confirmed for the first time that no decision on whether to dam the valley would be made until after the next election and even went as far as to say that such a project would be a “disaster” environmentally, squandering billions of potential tourism revenue.
“[In] my own opinion, I want to keep it for the younger generation, and it’s the same as the Chi Phat area, and [we] estimate it could earn $20 billion but instead of getting about $20 billion, we will lose around 20,000 hectares of forested of land.
“If we lost 20,000 hectares of forest, it would be a disaster and that area is the elephant crossing spot. If we do decide to develop, our sea over there will not be blue anymore, it turns to red sea, because when they're digging the land, it will float into the sea.”
San Mala, a co-founder of the grassroots conservation NGO Mother Nature, who was arrested along with Gonzalez-Davidson yesterday but later released, said Hun Sen's remarks were a direct threat to his organisation.
“When he said he will do anything if anyone tries to create autonomous zone, this is a heavy comment from him directly to our team, who have always tried to stop the Chinese company or any expert that wants to study [there],” Mala said.
If the government was serious about halting the Areng Valley dam, he added, they would stop surveying the area and start promoting it through the Ministry of Tourism.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party chief whip Son Chhay, himself a longtime opponent of plans to dam the Areng Valley, questioned the sincerity of the prime minister's seemingly newfound love of nature.
“Because the population of this country starts to become involved in helping Alex [Gonzalez-Davidson] to protect this river, he has no choice but to say he loves the river,” Chhay said, adding that the premier had done nothing to halt mass illegal logging in the same area.
Gonzalez-Davidson was deported yesterday after refusing to leave the country despite overstaying his visa, which the government had refused to renew.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY DAVID BOYLE