Koh Kong provincial authorities detained nine people, including the founder of a local environmental group established to protect the Areng Valley, for several hours yesterday after the activists blocked security forces from using an access road into the area.
As of press time, eight of the nine had been released, while Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, founder and president of NGO Mother Nature, which helps organises opposition to the construction of the planned Stung Cheay Areng hydropower dam in the valley, was unaccounted for.
Speaking shortly before he was detained by mixed security forces yesterday afternoon, Gonzalez-Davidson said the situation was “tense”.
“Our car’s blocking the road.… A lot of people came to block the access road. It’s very tense. They [the police] are talking to somebody high up. They don’t claim to be from the dam [company], they’re from the interministerial committee,” he said, referring to a government committee set up to oversee the planning of the dam’s construction.
Sin Samnang, 28, a Mother Nature representative who was at the blockade prior to the activists being detained, said that at about 1pm the armed security forces’ ranks swelled to about 50 officers.
“Before this event, we saw some 20 soldiers and police forces armed with guns. But later on, more and more came, up to about 50 armed forces, and they picked people up right away,” he said.
The group was brought to Thma Bang District Hall for questioning, he added.
“The community did not allow them [police] to enter. They haven’t studied the impacts [of the dam], but the authorities talked about the compensation instead,” Samnang said.
The crackdown on the Areng activists follows the blocking by security forces of a bicycle ride organised by Mother Nature in Phnom Penh last month to raise awareness of their cause.
China Southern Power Grid unveiled the dam project in 2010 but later backed out, and China Guodian Corporation soon took over. The planned 104-megawatt Stung Cheay Areng project was then taken over by Sinohydro early this year. In its annual report, Guodian said it had abandoned the project because it wasn’t “economically viable”.
Activists are concerned that, along with a host of negative environmental and social impacts, the dam concession will be used as cover for illegal logging and other side projects.
In February, Sinohydro Resources Ltd, a holding company for Sinohydro Group, was granted approval for six months of extensive drilling, geological mapping and prospecting at the site, which the provincial director of the Ministry of Mines and Energy said at the time could lead to mining operations if minerals were found.
Major environmental groups have publicly opposed the dam. In April, Conservation International and Fauna & Flora International wrote to Sawac Consultants for Development, a firm contracted by Sinohydro to carry out an environmental impact assessment for the project, suggesting the dam should not be built.
Grassroots resistance to the proposed dam has grown since January, with local residents and activists blocking several attempts by Sinohydro staff and security forces to enter the valley during a blockade of the access road earlier this year.
The latest confrontation, in Thma Bang’s Pralay commune, began after the activists heard in the early hours of yesterday that security forces would attempt to access the valley, Gonzalez-Davidson said.
Chhuch Rim, 27, an ethnic Chorng villager at the blockade yesterday, said the security forces had become angry after their path was blocked.
“Alex used his pickup truck to block the road with the people to stop the authorities, police and military police from entering,” he said. “Before their arrest, the authorities asked the protesters to stand in separate groups according to whether they were from the communities, the youth network from Phnom Penh or Mother Nature staff members.”
In Kong Chheth, provincial monitor for rights group Licadho, said the security forces were accompanied by provincial Deputy Governor Phun Ly Vireak, who he said was going to visit the local community ahead of the Pchum Ben festival.
“The arrest is in revenge, because the authorities were not happy with Alex and his activists who blocked the road many times,” Kong Chheth said. “So they accused them of interfering with the government’s affairs and arrested them.”
Ly Vireak told the Post that only nine people were detained for questioning.
“We did not arrest them, but instead, we just invited them for questioning about why they blocked the road like that. The police did not handcuff them,” he said.
Touch Savuth, Thma Bang district governor, and Sim Vary, district police chief, could not be reached for comment.