‘We cannot be dispirited’: Mother Nature activists defiant after court conviction in Cambodia

Mother Nature activists

Mother Nature activist Thun Ratha carries a sign that reads “Justice is dead”. Photo and caption from Licadho. CC BY-NC 4.0

Ten activist members of the environmental group Mother Nature were sentenced to six to eight years in jail for allegedly plotting against the government and insulting the king of Cambodia, which is forbidden in the country. The court decision was widely condemned by human rights advocates in and out of the country who bemoaned the shrinking civic space under the government of Prime Minister Hun Manet.

Mother Nature is known for organizing social media campaigns and youth-led community action campaigns to highlight environmental issues. In 2015 it led a campaign that successfully prevented the construction of a mega-dam in the remote Areng Valley, which would have damaged the ecosystem and displaced Indigenous groups. It also exposed sand smuggling operations in the country’s coastal areas. Several members spent around 14 months in jail for filming the flow of sewage from the royal palace into a river in 2021. Criminal charges were filed against the group in connection to these protests.

The group was awarded Sweden’s 2023 Right Livelihood award for its activism.

In June 2024, the group refused to enter the courtroom after authorities prevented the media and supporters from monitoring the hearing. The trial proceeded until the guilty verdict was handed out against ten members of the group on July 2. Five of the defendants, who were protesting outside the court in the country’s capital Phnom Penh, were quickly apprehended by security officials and violently dragged inside police vehicles after the verdict was issued. They were sent to different prison facilities across the country, a move criticized by their families because it would add to the cost and difficulties of visiting the convicted activists.

One of the activists, Phuon Keoreaksmey, was quoted by Radio Free Asia, a US-government-affiliated news website, saying:

So long as they still freely evict our people from their land; so long as they take our land to give it to the powerful; so long as they continue to destroy our forest; so long as they continue to jail us arbitrarily while we have not done anything wrong; this means that we cannot be dispirited.

More than 50 civil society groups issued a joint statement describing the verdict as a “national shame.”

Silencing environmental defenders and characterising their peaceful advocacy as a threat to the state is a mockery of justice.

This reliance on trumped-up charges to malign Mother Nature’s activities as attacks against the state reflects a failure to understand that jailing environmental and youth advocates only harms the country’s future. We should be honouring these activists, not imprisoning them.

Diplomats and global groups have expressed concern about the ruling and the declining rights and freedoms in the country, including the ongoing persecution of critics, under Hun Manet's government since he assumed power in 2023. Human Rights Watch said that the harsh sentencing “sends an appalling message to Cambodia’s youth that the government will side with special interests over the environment every chance it gets.”

But in an interview with the local media, government spokesman Pen Bona rejected the accusation that free speech is being curtailed.

I want to stress that here in Cambodia many people express their opinions or offer criticisms. This can be seen in both conventional and social media. Those who offer constructive criticism or commentary on social issues do not face any legal action. Legal action is only taken against those who violate Cambodian law.

At the time of writing, almost 100,000 people have signed an online petition calling for the release of the activists.

On X (Twitter), Mother Nature remained defiant as it vowed to continue pursuing social justice.

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