Preah Vihear officials abruptly barred environmental activists from holding a planned public forum Wednesday, with the activists claiming it was for political reasons and officials saying the group had failed to go through the proper channels.
Seng Sokheng, secretariat coordinator of Community Peace Building Network, said a forum outside the Chey Sen district office to discuss illegal logging in the Prey Long area was shut down by the provincial and district governors.
“District governor Thong Sakoeun came out saying that the provincial governor has ordered to not allow the public forum because he is too scared it will be used for political issues,” Mr. Sokheng said.
“I think it is their pretext because they want to avoid solving the problem of deforestation in Prey Long because they have colluded with businessmen to cut trees.”
Mr. Sokheng said the forum was going to focus on suspected illegal logging and its ties to the Try Pheap company. About 300 people were turned away.
Thong Sakoeun, Chey Sen district governor, admitted he had shut down the forum but said it had nothing to do with politics.
“I didn’t say we were banning the public forum because of political issues,” he said. “I said that the [provincial] governor ordered the forum to be banned because it lacked proper documents.”
Mr. Sakoeun said the activists only submitted a request to hold the forum one day before the event, which was unacceptable.
But Mr. Sokheng insisted the documents were submitted well in advance and a stage was set up on Tuesday.
Chhim Sokha, a representative of Sa’ang community in Preah Vihear, said authorities are ignoring forestry offenses in her community.
“We have observed at least 30 trucks carrying wood into Try Pheap company,” said Ms. Sokha. “We haven’t seen any authorities or forestry administration officials try to prevent these activities.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Licadho, said the banned forum was an infringement on free expression.
“I think it is a destruction of freedom of expression,” he said. “Community activists just wanted to raise concerns over forest destruction and ask the government to find measures to protect the forest.”
Ith Phoumra, Preah Vihear chief of cantonment Forestry Administration, hung up his phone when contacted by a reporter.
Oum Mara, the provincial governor, could not be reached for comment.
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