An environmental activist branded an “anarchist” by a government spokesman said he fled to the U.N. human rights office in Phnom Penh on Monday after police harassed him for becoming involved in a dispute between sand dredgers and villagers in Kandal province.
Villagers in Sa’ang district’s Raka Khpos commune asked for help from the NGO Mother Nature after nine of their homes fell into the Tonle Bassac river last month because of erosion they blame on rampant river sand dredging, activist Thun Ratha said on Monday.
Mr. Ratha, who has been involved in Mother Nature protests against environmentally destructive coastal sand dredging in Koh Kong province, arrived on Friday and planned on staying through the weekend to help villagers mobilize against the dredging, he said.
He coordinated a protest on Sunday morning that drew about 100 local residents.
On Sunday night, Mr. Ratha said, the commune police chief and village chief arrived at his accommodation demanding to know why he was in the area and asking to photograph his identification card. He refused their requests.
“I only stayed at a private house,” he said. “Why did I need to tell them?”
The homeowner did not answer the door at about 10 p.m. when a group of police officers returned with similar demands, and Mr. Ratha rebuffed a third attempt on Monday morning by another retinue of 10 district police officers, he said.
Fearing Mr. Ratha would be arrested, villagers then escorted him to the Phnom Penh offices of OHCHR, the U.N. human rights agency, where he said he met briefly with staff before eventually heading to a capital guesthouse.
Contacted for a response on Monday, OHCHR spokesperson Sovanna Mann said the agency did not comment on individual cases.
In a statement on Monday evening, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights urged authorities to “cease their unjustified harassment and obstruction of Mr. Ratha.”
Sa’ang district police chief Seng Socheat claimed it was protocol for police to ask for the identities of visitors and said Mr. Ratha had lied to authorities about his motives by telling them he was merely visiting family.
“It’s normal,” he said of the questioning, denying that police had any intention of arresting Mr. Ratha. “We are police—we need to ask for the identity of newcomers.”
Mines and Energy Ministry spokesman Dith Tina blamed natural causes for the riverbank erosion but said that authorities had ordered local dredging companies to shore up the riverbank with sand immediately after the collapse anyway.
The majority of those living in the area were fine with the dredging and the government’s oversight until they were incited “to protest by politically motivated outsiders and [an] anarchist individual under [an] NGO[’s] name,” he wrote in an email.
Mr. Ratha said he nonetheless planned on attending a ministry visit to the commune he said was scheduled for today.
(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)