Billed as a Cambodian first, the invitation of 500 civil society and community representatives to a forum on environmental issues with Prime Minister Hun Sen proved largely a platform for the premier to hold forth on policy and politics, with many observers bemoaning the sidelining of community voices.
“We consider this an enlarged cabinet meeting and decisions taken today have the effect of cabinet decisions . . . otherwise the value of today is just sweet talk,” Hun Sen said near the start of a five-hour soliloquy on environmental policy that left little room for contributions from the audience.
NGO Forum director Tek Vannara, the first to speak from the floor, requested that the town-hall-style meeting be repeated every three months. Hun Sen met him part way, decreeing that it should become an annual event, starting next March.
“Whether the meeting agrees with me or not, if we are waiting 12 months, it is too much,” the prime minister said in setting a date seven months out, adding that quarterly meetings should also be organised between stakeholders and relevant ministries.
Hun Sen went on to chastise the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) for having “one head and three tails”.
“That is one of the reasons we can’t protect our forests and fisheries,” he said, going on to demand that the ministry fold provincial Forestry Administration and Fisheries Administration offices under a singular Agriculture Ministry office.
Activist monk But Buntenh, who was also granted microphone time, requested ministerial assistance in procuring saplings for his tree-planting projects and questioned why he had been detained while distributing T-shirts with environmentalist slogans.
Hun Sen instructed MAFF to provide saplings from its nurseries to any civil society group wishing to plant them and promised to look into why it is the monk was arrested before then jokingly offering to cook him lunch.
Next up was Conservation International country manager Seng Bunra, who requested more rangers be assigned to protect the Kingdom’s protected forests. “Please, increase the number of rangers in line with our 6 million hectares of parkland,” he said.
His request was immediately granted to applause, with Hun Sen decreeing that budgets should be re-jigged to allow the recruitment of 300 new rangers by next year.
The only member of an affected community able to speak followed. Mou Nenh of Oddar Meanchey-based NGO Solidarity Forest requested that the government provide funds for sustainable forest management to communes located near woodland. That request was granted, too.
“There will be budget allocated for communities to care for forests. Let’s say we give 100 million riel ($24,391),” Hun Sen said.
But many observers were dismayed to see just one forest community member speak at the forum.
“We spent $13,000 bringing 200 people to the conference today,” said Winrock country director Curtis Hundley. “I was disappointed the community didn’t have a larger voice, I would hope that in future forums they would have a greater voice – they took days out of their lives to come down because they think this is important.”
His sentiment was echoed by Danmission country director Ernst Jurgensen and WWF country director Chhith Sam Ath.
“I don’t think the community had enough chance to represent their opinion,” Sam Ath said. “I didn’t use my opportunity to talk because I wanted to hear more from communities rather than me talking.”
By far the lengthiest audience contribution came from social media celebrity Thy Sovantha, who referred to the prime minister as “grandpa” and was designated “granddaughter” in return. She requested an 18-kilometre road for Koh Kong's Areng Valley to help communities get their produce to market. She got her road.
Chheuy Odom Reaksmey, son of slain forest activist Chut Wutty, questioned what Sovantha was doing at the forum at all.
“If the government is willing, they should have done this five or six years ago, not waiting until the forest is almost lost, and the government should work with real activists, not like Thy Sovantha, who is very new to the issue. She knows nothing about the forests, she doesn’t even know that government officials are involved in logging,” Reaksmey said.