When activists Mom Sakin and Sorn Siyan took a stand against illegal logging in Kratie province last month, they were allegedly threatened with violence and lawsuits from officials.
“Powerful people who wanted to intimidate us shot their guns into the air to prevent us from going into the forest,” Sakin, a member of the provincial branch of the Community Peace Network, said yesterday.
When the activists burned seven cubic metres of illegally logged timber they later found in the forest, the threats intensified.
Some of those threats allegedly came from a Forestry Administration official and a high-ranking police officer.
“I’m afraid of being shot, so I have fled to Phnom Penh,” Siyan told the Post yesterday.
Sakin has done the same and has been hiding in the capital for the past two weeks.
Stories like these are becoming more frequent among human rights defenders and activists, particularly those seeking to counter illegal logging, rights group Adhoc said yesterday.
“So far in 2013, 48 [human rights defenders] and activists have been threatened for their work relating to the protection of environmental and natural resources,” Adhoc said in a statement. “Those working to protect poorer Cambodians against rights abuses have repeatedly found themselves threatened and intimidated by the authorities, often at the bequest of rich and well-connected business figures.”
A total of 238 human rights defenders faced judicial harassment in 2012, and 46 new cases of courts being used to intimidate activists have already emerged this year, Adhoc’s research shows.
Increasing were incidents of rights workers being accused of inciting protests after visiting communities to explain human rights, Adhoc president Thun Saray said.
“But, in fact, the law states that it’s not incitement unless they urge people to use violence or destroy property,” he said. “The authorities want people to agree with their resolutions. Whoever doesn’t is considered to be provoking them.”
Adhoc urged the government to respect human rights and to co-operate with defenders and activists in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
“Those threatened have not had any protection offered from the authorities. Rather, threats and intimidation have come from officials, including local, provincial and judicial authorities,” Adhoc’s statement adds.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said Cambodia operated under the rule of law, meaning courts were not used to intimidate people.
“Dispute resolution under the law is not threats,” he said. “Those who think it is are rebels who – like the Khmer Rouge – make campaigns to destroy rule of law.
“Adhoc and other civil society just like government officials are subject to the law. It does not mean NGOs are not touched or government officials are not touched.”
Chan Soveth, deputy head of Adhoc’s land section, is himself facing possible court proceedings over his dealings with villagers in a land dispute in Pursat.
His organisation, he said, was looking at ways of co-operating with the authorities to avoid conflict.
“But if we stop helping communities, problems will happen,” he said.
Despite the threats she has received, Sakin is also committed to fighting for her community and will brave the forest again soon.
“I will return to Kratie to join more patrols. If I go alone, I will be scared, but I will feel safe as part of a group,” she said.
Kong Kimny, governor of Kratie province’s Snuol district, denied threats had been made against Sakin and Siyan.