Government Standing By Decision to Not Renew Activist’s Visa

The Ministry of Interior on Wednesday said it was standing by its decision to not renew the visa of outspoken environmental activist Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson in the face of mounting pressure from fellow activists, NGOs, unions, students and monks—even opposition leader Sam Rainsy—to reverse course.

The ministry says it won’t renew the visa, which expires Friday, because Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson and fellow activists from his NGO, Mother Nature, used a makeshift roadblock to briefly stall a government convoy on its way to the proposed site of a hydropower dam in Koh Kong province in September. The NGO wants the government to cancel plans for the dam, which would force hundreds of ethnic minority families to leave their ancestral homeland in the Areng Valley and flood the habitat of some 30 globally threatened animal species.

Mr. Rainsy, president of the opposition CNRP, sent Interior Minister Sar Kheng a letter on Monday urging him to renew Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson’s visa. CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha followed suit on Wednesday with letters to National Assembly President Heng Samrin and King Norodom Sihamoni.

But Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said Wednesday that the government would not be changing its mind.

“The ministry asks [Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson] to leave the country for a short time before he can come back,” General Sopheak said. “We hope that this measure is acceptable to all.”

The government says Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson can apply for a new visa once he leaves Cambodia, but not before. Mr. Sopheak explained Wednesday that the activist had to leave the country first because of the complaint filed against him by Koh Kong officials over the roadblock.

He said the government could have deported, or even prosecuted, him but chose a more moderate approach.

“The reaction has to be in the middle,” Mr. Sopheak said. “He has admitted that he committed [a crime] because he blocked the road. But we don’t want to create the problem…. When the problem is small, we can put [prosecution] off.”

A letter Wednesday from acting Interior Minister Em Sam An to Mr. Rainsy reiterates the government’s decision and adds that Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson also violated his NGO’s contract with the government by obstructing the work of public officials.

The letter says the government has no predetermined intention to block the activist’s return so long as he fills out the necessary paperwork and, more cryptically, “has enough qualifications, like other immigrants, in accordance with the principles and laws of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson and his supporters say the government’s decision to not renew his visa is politically motivated because he has helped to stall progress on the dam, which is backed by ruling party Senator Lao Meng Khin and his wife, one of the most powerful couples in the country. Prime Minister Hun Sen himself came out in support of the project earlier this month.

At a press conference in Phnom Penh Wednesday morning, a group of university students and activist monks announced their plans to protest in front of the National Assembly on Friday to demand that the government renew the activist’s visa immediately.

“We are very upset that the government has refused to renew the visa because Alex is a great activist who is protecting the natural resources in Areng,” said Sorn Chandara, a member of the Khmer Youth Empire.

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson, contacted afterward, reiterated his intention to remain in Cambodia whether or not his visa is renewed.

“If they want to get rid of me, they have to do so in front of the epicenter of democracy, or what should be the epicenter,” he said, referring to the planned protest in front of the National Assembly.

Asked again about the protest, however, he would neither confirm nor deny that he intended to show up—for fear of provoking a violent crackdown from police.

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said he was consulting with a lawyer to find out whether he could, or should, challenge the government’s decision on legal grounds.

“I think there is much more to it than what authorities say…. I am researching and reading about how true what the authorities say is,” he said.

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