Prime Minister Hun Sen for the first time yesterday publicly announced that construction of the Areng Valley dam would not go ahead in this mandate, issuing the promise in a speech that sought to curb the outpouring of criticism over the abrupt deportation of anti-dam activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson.
The premier yesterday said that the valley – home to one of the Kingdom’s most unspoiled forests, and a hotbed of biodiversity – should be left to younger generations.
However, he was also steadfast in his support for the continuation of controversial assessments of the dam site, admonishing critics to drop the matter; then, in the same breath, he expressed doubt that the project should ever move forward.
“I would like to say do not talk about the Areng Valley anymore,” he said. “Study it more clearly; and I think even if we study it clearly until 2018, we cannot develop it. And in my opinion, I want to leave it for the next generation.”
While opposition leader Sam Rainsy announced in October he had received the prime minister’s word the dam would not move ahead this mandate, yesterday’s announcement was the first from Hun Sen himself.
Hun Sen also took the opportunity yesterday to defend his decision to deport Gonzalez-Davidson, saying the deportation was a matter of law, not an attempt to score a political victory.
He accused the Spaniard of inciting Cambodians to block a group intent on assessing the environmental impact of the dam, and called on Cambodians to redirect their love of the Khmer-speaking activist – who has achieved a measure of celebrity for his opposition to the dam – towards the Areng itself.
“We do not want to win or to lose, but the law is the law, the state is the state, sovereignty is sovereignty,” he said, adding that input from Western-based activists was not particularly welcome. “They logged all the timber in Europe for development and then they advise Asia? We accept recommendations, but not too extreme.”
In an apparent joke, the premier also threatened to deploy heavy weapons to the area if activists there attempted to form an “autonomous zone”.
“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.
The joke, however, had ominous undertones, given that claims of “autonomous zones” have precipitated tragedy in the past. In 2012, land disputants in Kratie province’s Pro Ma village were accused of a “secessionist” plot, and evicted from their homes in a swift and violent military operation that saw a teenage girl shot to death by security forces.
Despite the seeming ambivalence towards the Areng dam in yesterday’s speech, in a letter sent to National Assembly President Heng Samrin last month, Hun Sen stressed the importance of weighing the benefits of development against conservation, even suggesting that “hydropower would become a participant to help preserve and maintain the remaining forest”.
Gonzalez-Davidson, speaking from an undisclosed location yesterday, said that the premier’s speech presented something of a mixed bag.
“Hun Sen’s statement is the first time he has verbally mentioned Areng dam himself, which might open up new possibilities,” he told the Post. “It is possible that he is trying to give a stick (my deportation) to civil society/opposition party, and a carrot (the alleged cancellation of the Areng dam) to the Cambodian people. The problem is that, as we have seen in Cambodia time and again in the last few years, ‘research’ and feasibility studies are just an excuse for district/provincial elements of the ‘government’ to make money out of mining, logging, et cetera.”
Sin Samnang, another member of Mother Nature, said yesterday that the residents of the Areng Valley also held mixed feelings about the address, welcoming the premier’s promise to halt construction, while at the same time expressing concern over continued studies, and the return of representatives of the dam’s Chinese builder, Sinohydro.
Independent analyst Ou Virak, however, said that yesterday’s speech could represent a genuine about-face on the part of the premier, an attempt to win populist points after being chastened by an election that saw his party – campaigning exclusively on his popularity – endure huge losses.
“I think he could be changing course. He’s been saying some things before the deportation of Alex as well,” Virak said. “I don’t know, but I strangely believe him this time.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH AND STUART WHITE