Two Cambodian activists say they were briefly detained by authorities in Laos on Sunday after sneaking across the border to take photographs of the planned site of the Don Sahong hydropower dam, which regional governments and environmentalists fear could cut into critical fish stocks downstream.
Chum Huot said he, his twin brother Chum Huor and fellow activist Se Samedi hired a boatman to take them up the Mekong River from Stung Treng province, across the Lao-Cambodian border and the extra 2 kilometers to the intended site of the Don Sahong.
Once they arrived, Mr. Huot said he and his brother “decided to climb onto the bank to see what was happening there. But authorities arrived and asked us, ‘Where are you from?’ and escorted us to the police station.”
Before marching them off, he said, the eight men—two uniformed officers and six others in civilian clothes—took two cameras and two smartphones off them and tossed them into the river.
“When we tried to run to the boat, they pointed their rifles at us,” he said.
At the station, Mr. Huot said, the officers questioned them with the aid of a translator from about 9 a.m. until noon and threatened to shoot them dead if they ever returned.
He said they were finally released with the help of unknown “foreigners,” possibly U.N. or NGO workers, he speculated, who escorted them back to the border.
Mr. Samedi said he saw Mr. Huot and Mr. Huor being taken into custody but managed to flee in the boat along with their driver.
“We did not go there to do anything illegal. We just wanted to go there like tourists and to investigate whether there is an impact on the environment,” said Mr. Samedi, who added that construction had already begun.
“We wanted to interview villagers in the area about the effects of the dam,” he said. “We think the dam will have serious effects on the environment.”
Sem Sitha, police chief of Thala Barivat district, which abuts Laos, said he did not receive any reports about the incident from Laotian authorities. But he said the activists had crossed the border illegally and that his superiors would decide whether they should be punished.
“If they want to visit legally on a tour, it’s OK. But in this case, they went to do an investigation, and that’s not possible,” he said.
Laotian authorities could not immediately be reached for comment.
The planned 256-megawatt dam, to be built on the Mekong River just 2 km from the Cambodian border, has long been a source of tension between Laos and its neighbors, who fear its potential to wreak environmental havoc and reduce their fish stocks by interfering with migration routes.
In October, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong asked Laos’ visiting deputy prime minister for further study of the dam before starting construction, follow- ing the Laotian parliament’s approval of a concession agreement paving the way for building to begin.
In a statement released a month earlier, more than 40 Cambodian non-governmental groups expressed “strong disappointment” with the decision, saying Laos had yet to properly assess possible impacts of the dam on Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.
As for Mr. Huot and Mr. Huor, the brothers have been arrested for their activism before.
They were among six people arrested in July for protesting outside the National Assembly against the recently passed NGO law while dressed in prison uniforms. All six were released the same day.