Mother Nature activists go on trial in Cambodia

The defendants are facing charges that they insulted Cambodia’s king and plotted to overthrow the government.
By RFA Khmer
2024.05.29

Wearing white to protest what they call an unfair justice system, five activists from environmental group Mother Nature appeared in Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday on charges that they insulted Cambodia’s king and plotted to overthrow the government.

The activists are among eight from Mother Nature facing charges in a case that covers several instances of activism by the group, including the 2021 filming of sewage draining into the Tonle Sap river in front of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace. 

Two of the activists – Thon Ratha and Yim Leang Hy – shaved their heads to convey their devotion to social work and carried lotus flowers to show they don’t carry any hatred or desire for revenge. 

“Mother Nature’s work is to protect the environment. We don’t gather people to topple the government or to hate anyone,” Yim Leang Hy told the court. “Hatred is not on Mother Nature’s agenda.” 

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Mother Nature founder Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson is shown in an undated photo. (Mother Nature)

Registered with Cambodian authorities in 2013, Mother Nature has worked over the years to protect the country’s environment, exposing irregularities in development and construction projects and helping villagers organize to protect their land.

The group’s Khmer-speaking founder, Spanish environmentalist Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, was deported from Cambodia in 2015 after the government refused to renew his visa. Opposition groups and local NGOs said he was expelled to prevent him from organizing against a planned hydropower dam in southwestern Koh Kong province.

Gonzalez-Davidson is one of the eight facing charges in the current case. He hasn’t been allowed to return to Cambodia since 2015 and wasn’t present in the courtroom on Wednesday.

Bracing for bad news

Mother Nature suspended operations in Cambodia in 2021 amid another round of charges against the activists, which were widely thought to be politically motivated. Wednesday’s hearing was related to those charges. 

The other three activists in court were Long Kunthea, Phuon Keo Raksmey and Ly Chandaravuth, who returned to Cambodia last week after a month-long trip to the United States.

“We know Cambodia’s court system and the verdict might not be good for me,” he said in a video blog published by Radio Free Asia on Tuesday. “I’ve prepared myself to confront what will happen.”

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Ly Chandaravuth in an undated video screenshot. (RFA)

More than a dozen evicted villagers, youth activists and monks came to the court to raise banners that read, “We support Mother Nature” and “Environmental protection is not illegal.”

A university student in Phnom Penh, Ream Srey Pich Ratana, said she came to show her support for the activists because she felt that the court’s charges were contrary to the group’s actual efforts to protect the environment.

RFA couldn’t immediately reach Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin for comment.

The hearing was also attended by European Union diplomats to Cambodia and representatives from the United Nations and several NGOs. 

Presiding Judge Ouk Reth Kunthea scheduled the next hearing in the case for June 5. 

Translated by Yun Samean. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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