Anti-Dredging Activist Held for Filming, Inciting Protesters

An environmental activist released from custody last night said police told him he was detained for inciting Kandal province villagers to protest against sand dredging in their community and flying a drone to film a demonstration.

Hun Vannak, of the environmental NGO Mother Nature, said he was arrested by military police at about 12:30 p.m. on Monday in Sa’ang district after having used his smartphone to film a demonstration of some 200 villagers in Raka Khpos commune.

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Hun Vannak outside the Kandal provincial police headquarters last night (Mother Nature)

Mr. Vannak acknowledged that he had operated a drone to film in the area on Saturday and Sunday.

For months, local residents have been protesting about sand dredging, which they say has caused erosion along the Tonle Bassac riverbank resulting in the destruction of 10 houses.

“The police said I was arrested for inciting the villagers to hold the protest this morning. And I told them that if the villagers were not happy they would demonstrate. It is not my initiative,” Mr. Vannak said soon after 8 p.m. last night.

Police required him to thumbprint a contract promising not to return to the area or participate in protests with local villagers, but he said he would not be deterred.

“I agreed to thumbprint because I know I didn’t violate the law,” Mr. Vannak said, vowing to return to the commune today. “This cannot stop me from helping the people.”

Mines and Energy Ministry official Dith Tina said in June that the “anarchist” Mother Nature was agitating a minority of local residents against the dredging. Ministry spokesman Monyrath Yos on Monday declined to comment earlier in the day and later could not be reached.

Before Mr. Vannak’s release last night, Ou Phally, district military police commander, said his forces had detained Mr. Vannak and sent him to the provincial police station.

“We were just helping secure the protest,” Mr. Phally said.

Deputy provincial governor Khim Chankiri attributed the riverbank erosion to the Mekong river’s natural flow during the rainy season. He said he had met with protesting villagers on Monday and noted their concerns.

“But we can’t halt the sand dredging. Otherwise, we are going to have no sand for construction,” Mr. Chankiri said.

Mot Kimry, Mother Nature’s co-founder, said on Monday that Mr. Vannak’s arrest was an act of intimidation against the group, which had been raising awareness among the villagers about their rights and the environmental impact of sand dredging since early June.

“I think it is a real threat to other environmental activists,” Mr. Kimry said. “We have been targeted.”

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