An activist in Stung Treng province has been hauled before commune authorities, threatened with a defamation suit and allegedly warned he could be beaten to death for exposing land clearing in his native Thala Borivat district.
Uk Mao, 53, said he was interrogated for an hour on Sunday after leading local reporters on several occasions to an area of state and community forest in Sam Ang commune he says has been cleared for about four years by migrant farmers, with some of the land also sold off for between $150 and $200 per hectare.
“They said that I defamed them over the forest logging,” Mao, an ethnic Kuoy villager, said yesterday.
“They said that I reported untrue information. I responded: ‘Why is it untrue? You must have never been to the forest then.’ I spoke the truth.”
Mao said news reports of the clearing had enraged local commune officials, particularly commune chief Nhien Phon, whose aggressive response led the activist to believe local authorities may be complicit in the forest’s destruction.
“In my mind, I think that they are involved, because [Phon] pointed his finger at me at the café and threatened me. [He said] ‘do not talk carelessly or villagers might beat you dead’.”
Reached yesterday, Phon rejected the claim of involvement and said inspections of the site by multiple government agencies had found nothing untoward.
“We have never seen a site where thousands of hectares of land have been sold,” he said, before hanging up.
Even if land has been cleared, Mao said the commune police had seized upon his rough estimate that 3,000 hectares were affected and demanded he thumbprint a document testifying to the claim.
“They said that if the land size is smaller by only 1 hectare, they can jail me,” he said.
Sam Ang commune police chief Kong Sina, who issued the summons for Mao, said though some local forests had been logged in the past, claims of recent clearing was untrue.
He said Mao’s case had been sent to his district superiors for a decision.
Thala Borivat District Governor Thong Srun dismissed the activist’s claims, which he said were “completely untrue” and amounted to defamation of public officials.
Under the Kingdom’s Criminal Code, citizens can defame both an individual and institution by “any allegation or charge made in bad faith” that injures a party’s honour or reputation. The maximum fine is about $2,500. A one- to six-day prison sentence is also prescribed for anyone convicted of insulting a public official.
“I have inspected [the site] myself, and there is no crime,” Srun said, before suggesting Mao could escape legal action if he shut up.
“We will call for him once or twice, and if he does not listen, we will implement our procedures.”
Speaking yesterday, a journalist shown the site by Mao confirmed his account.
“There is land clearing up to thousands of hectares,” said the journalist, who requested anonymity.