The Interior Ministry on Friday announced it had stricken critical environmental NGO Mother Nature from its registry, effective immediately, with the group saying it had requested the move and would continue to investigate sand dredging and export violations in the country’s southwest despite the de-registration.
In a letter disclosing the move, the ministry said the NGO had requested the removal of its own accord in a letter from Mother Nature head Prum Thomacheat on August 23 requesting dissolution of the environmental group.
Deported Mother Nature co-founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson said on Friday that the request had been prompted by constant harassment of two other co-founders, Thomacheat and fellow monk Sok Chantra.
He added that the move would not affect the functioning of the group, which would now operate as a “movement of concerned citizens”.
“So the best strategy is to not continue as a registered NGO but as a movement of concerned citizens,” he said. “All our members are volunteers and we don’t need much funding.”
The letter, signed by Interior Ministry Secretary of State Pol Lim, says that the ministry had decided to remove Mother Nature from the government’s list of NGOs, thereby invalidating any documents given to the group permitting its operations in Cambodia.
“The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior [Sar Kheng] decides to cancel the Mother Nature organisation . . . from the list of the non-governmental organisations of the Ministry of Interior,” the letter reads.
Gonzalez-Davidson, however, dismissed claims by an Interior Ministry spokesman that funding was behind the dissolution. Thomacheat and Chantra, he said, held a meeting in August and decided to dissolve the NGO following consistent harassment of the duo, which he claimed almost resulted in their arrest last year.
He added that the repeated harassment and arrest of the group’s activists – which he characterised as “state-sponsored kidnappings” – showed the group would be “sitting ducks” if they continued as a registered NGO.
He added that the group had already ceased to function like an NGO since October 2014, and was unperturbed by the possibility of the government saying they were “committing a crime” by not being registered.
Mother Nature activist Thun Ratha said the group’s volunteers have always taken assistance from locals for food and accommodation, and the closure of the NGO would have no effect on their work.
“We will use our rights on behalf of Cambodian citizens. We have never committed crimes but we only dare to expose and speak the truth,” Ratha said.
The NGO has been a thorn in the government’s side with its consistent reporting on sand-dredging activities in the country’s southwest.
Its outspoken activism also precipitated the deportation of Gonzalez-Davidson in 2015.
Last week, Taiwanese trade figures showed imports of silica sand dwarfing Cambodia’s recorded exports to the tune of some $30 million.
The revelation followed a similar scandal involving exports to Singapore, which recorded some $700 million dollars more in imports than Cambodia recorded in exports, prompting suspicions of impropriety.
Additionally, the two Mother Nature activists who first pointed out the silica sand discrepancies – Dem Kundy and Hun Vannak – were arrested last week for filming suspected sand-bearing vessels in Koh Kong province, and have since been charged with incitement and making unauthorised recordings.