NGOs Come to Defense of Koh Kong Dam Critic

Thirty-one local NGOs and unions on Tuesday condemned the government’s decision to not renew the visa of outspoken environmental activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson and urged the authorities to reverse course.

The rights groups, unions, communities and associations issued a joint statement calling the Interior Ministry’s refusal to renew the Spanish national’s visa, which expires Friday, a clear attack on legitimate dissent in the interests of one of the country’s most powerful families.

“We strongly urge the Cambodian government to reconsider its decision and allow for Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson to continue working…to support local communities,” the statement says.

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson and the NGO he co-founded, Mother Nature, have become the face of opposition to a proposed hydropower dam in Koh Kong province’s Areng Valley backed by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin and his wife, who together own vast tracts of land around the country from which thousands of families have been forcibly evicted.

The Stung Chhay Areng dam, if green-lighted, would force another 300-plus ethnic minority families off their ancestral lands and flood the habitat of several threatened animal species.

The Interior Ministry says it is refusing to renew Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson’s visa over a roadblock he and his NGO set up across the main road to the proposed project site that briefly stalled a convoy of cars carrying government officials into the valley in September.

Those who signed Tuesday’s statement say the government wants to get Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson out of the way in order to push the dam forward.

“The government’s decision to deny Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson a visa renewal is a perfect example of the government’s sustained attempt to quash grassroots advocacy, silence dissent and ensure an environment where the government can operate with immunity from independent criticism,” Naly Pilorge, the director of rights group Licadho, says in the statement.

Ee Sarom, executive director of housing rights NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, adds that forcing the activist out of the country will do nothing to solve the underlying grievances of the ethnic Chong families facing eviction.

“Instead of kicking him out,” he says, “authorities would [do] better discussing the issue with Mother Nature and the local communities it represents, taking into full account the issues at stake.”

On Monday, opposition CNRP President Sam Rainsy sent Interior Minister Sar Kheng a letter also urging him to let Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson renew his visa.

Contacted on Tuesday, Mr. Rainsy said he had yet to receive a reply.

“There is no reason, not enough reason, to force Alex to leave the country by not renewing his visa,” he said. “I don’t think the reasons the government puts forward are legitimate.”

Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, could not be reached on Tuesday. But he has previously denied any political motive in the visa decision.

Sok Veasna, who heads the department’s non-immigration office, said Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson would be allowed to apply for a new visa if he left Cambodia voluntarily but would not comment on whether that application would be approved.

“It depends on the decision of the ministry,” he said. “We have received orders to not extend his visa; we have no orders to ban him from coming back to Cambodia.”

Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson says he will not leave Cambodia voluntarily and will have to be forced out if his visa is not renewed by Friday.

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