About 30 villagers escorted two environmental activists from Kandal province’s Sa’ang district to the relative safety of Phnom Penh yesterday after the pair were allegedly harassed by local police for helping coordinate a protest against sand dredging in the area the day before.
The activists, Thun Ratha, 25, and Meng Heng, 27, of the group Mother Nature, were brought to the city in the afternoon on a remorque alongside 15 of the villagers, while the rest followed on their motorbikes fearing that the activists might be arrested, according to Heng.
The pair had travelled to Koh Kor village in Raka Khpos commune on Sunday to help coordinate a protest to demand that the authorities halt sand dredging operations in the Tonle Bassac river, after about 10 homes had collapsed into the water over the past year.
Ratha said police had demanded to photograph his national identification card on Sunday after his fellow activist presented a photo of his own ID card, but that he had refused.
At around 10:30pm, he said, about 10 commune police officers and the local village chief showed up to the house where he was staying, demanding once again to see his identification.
More commune, district and provincial police returned in the morning, Ratha said.
“They told me to show my NGO work card and ID card, wanting to know where I’m from, but I declined,” he said. “No law orders us to show them the document as a simple citizen. I am not a criminal.”
Kandal Police Chief Eav Chamroeun said he had seen a video the activists posted on Facebook in which they said they wanted to end dredging in the area. He said he believed they were going to “incite” villagers.
“I wanted them to show who they are,” he said. “And I told my policemen to ask them.”
Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a co-founder of Mother Nature who was deported from Cambodia in 2015, said he was not surprised by the alleged case of harassment, explaining that the activists “faced this issue countless times” when organising protests against sand-dredging.
Sorn Ramana, a project coordinator at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the activists had rights to freedom of assembly and association under Cambodia’s Constitution.
“While no arrest was made in this case, the repeated confronting of Mr Thun Ratha by large numbers of state forces constitutes an act of intimidation and a restriction of Mr. Ratha’s rights,” Ramana said.
Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman Dith Tina said that there are four licensed dredging companies operating legally in the in the area, identifying the firms as Leng Chin Group Co Ltd, Song Sopheap, Bassac Mekong Development Co Ltd and Porniron Co Ltd. All received a two-year dredging licences last year, Tina said, and the nearest dredging zone was about 600 metres from the collapsed homes.
After a riverbank collapse occurred in the area in March, the ministry sent a specialist to inspect, and determined the collapse was “due to natural erosion of the riverbank”, Tina added.