Authorities in Phnom Penh briefly detained about 100 villagers yesterday who were distributing leaflets to raise awareness of the ongoing destruction of Prey Long, one of Cambodia’s largest remaining primary forests.
The leaflet distributors had their materials confiscated and were escorted to six commune offices where they were questioned and “reeducated,” said a statement by rights groups, who condemned the mass detentions.
The environmental protesters, some sporting green T-shirts, face paint and leaf hats and who have modeled themselves on the indigenous race fighting for survival in the Hollywood science fiction blockbuster “Avatar,” had gathered earlier yesterday to pray at a shrine in front of the Royal Palace.
When the villagers dispersed to distribute information leaflets about Prey Long at various traffic light junctions around the city, the authorities moved in.
Prey Long is the largest remaining lowland evergreen forest in mainland Southeast Asia. It is threatened by illegal logging, cash crop plantations and mining companies. With a core area of about 135,000 hectares of pristine forest, Prey Long stretches across Stung Treng, Preah Vihear, Kratie and Kompong Thom provinces. The majority of the 200,000 people who live in 339 villages in and around Prey Long are members of the Kuy indigenous minority.
More than a dozen of the peaceful protesters were detained and taken in a truck from the intersections of Norodom, Mao Tse Tung and Sothearos boulevards to Tonle Bassac commune office. Chamkar Mon district deputy governor Chor Kimsor told the protestors that distributing leaflets was prohibited and he then released them.
“It is illegal for them to distribute leaflets without permission, and it disrupts public order,” Mr Kimsor told reporters. Defending his detention of the villagers, Mr Kimsor said: “We just invited them to discuss procedures and educate them.”
Villagers and human rights groups said there was no invitation when it came to their detention.
“It’s not right that the authorities banned and briefly detained us,” said Phouk Hong, 38, who was rounded up with 23 others Prey Long villagers while they distributed leaflets at the intersection of Mao Tse Tung and Monivong boulevards.
“We have done nothing wrong. We only did this to alert people throughout the provinces and government about the need to protect Prey Long forest,” Ms Hong said.
Four people were also detained at Srah Chak commune office, 18 at Chaktomuk commune office, 22 at Boeng Salang commune office and 11 at Phsar Doeum Kor commune office, it was reported in a statement by rights groups Licadho, Community Legal Education Center and the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
The rights groups’ statement noted that private businesses freely distribute leaflets throughout the city without the need of authorization.
Authorities were employing a double standard when it came to efforts to protect the environment, according to the statement.
“Today’s claim by the authorities that their activities could disrupt social order is an excuse to avoid addressing the national problem of Prey Long,” said Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Center.
The confiscated leaflets called on the government to stop awarding economic land concessions to private companies that are damaging the forest, and for the authorities to revoke the licenses of companies whose activities have already damaged the environment and the local communities that rely on Prey Long.
The demonstration in Phnom Penh was one of several events across the country yesterday to campaign against the exploitation and deforestation of Prey Long forest.
The Prey Long Community Network said in a statement that 146 communities held activities in 14 provinces.
In March, several hundred villagers engaged in a three-day stand off with armed security forces. The villagers were trying to stop a Vietnamese-owned rubber company from clearing 6,000 hectares of land in a section of Prey Long in Kompong Thom province’s Sandan district.