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Authorities order dismantling of controversial Areng Valley community centre

Areng activist Ven Vorn speaks during a 2014 news conference. Koh Kong’s Chumnap commune authorities on Wednesday ordered the removal of the Stung Areng community center, the construction of which led to Vorn's arrest in 2015.
Areng activist Ven Vorn speaks during a 2014 news conference. Koh Kong’s Chumnap commune authorities on Wednesday ordered the removal of the Stung Areng community center, the construction of which led to Vorn's arrest in 2015. Pha Lina

Authorities order dismantling of controversial Areng Valley community centre

Authorities in Koh Kong’s Chumnap commune have threatened to take legal action if a community centre built by villagers and Mother Nature activists is not dismantled next month to make way for a new commune office.

A notice from commune chief Meas Chrea, dated Wednesday, calls for the “removal” by April 25 of the community centre, the construction of which led to an arrest in 2015 of one of its backers.

“Commune authorities need the area to construct a standard commune hall in upcoming time in order to serve public services for the people,” the letter reads.

The notice further says that if the community centre is not brought down by the deadline, authorities will “take legal action according to the law.”

A provincial court in 2016 found Ven Vorn, a former Chumnap commune councilor for the Cambodian People’s Party, guilty of “forest crimes” and handed down a one-year sentence with seven months suspended. He was charged for harvesting forest products without authorisation and tampering with evidence that he had purchased timber illegally to build the community centre.

Vorn’s conviction at the time was characterized by at least one human rights worker as punishment for his activism against a hydropower dam in the Areng Valley and his close association to Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a co-founder of Mother Nature.

Vorn couldn’t be reached for comment. His wife, Morn Samon, said she regretted the demand by authorities to bring down the community centre, especially given her husband’s efforts to build it.

“We are still discussing to find a new location,” she said. “They said the current commune office is small, so they want us to relocate.”

Chreay couldn’t be reached for comment.

Thma Bang District Governor An Sophearith said authorities were meeting with villagers on Thursday to discuss the issue.

Gonzalez-Davidson late on Wednesday said the community centre had received the go ahead by commune authorities when it was first built. It has been used since 2015 by local communities for advocacy, tourism and other purposes.

The centre was built on land believed to be communal, he said in an email. “Of course that land tenure and demarcation in Areng is highly susceptible to problems arising since there are no land titles there,” he said.

He said Mother Nature would try to preserve the centre.

“We will work with local communities to ensure that this place, for which plenty of tears have been shed, is not dismantled,” he said.

Additional reporting by Yesenia Amaro

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