Eighteen environmental activists from the Mother Nature Movement were prevented from completing a bicycle campaign to highlight environmental concerns at a protected Koh Kong Krav island in Koh Kong province.
Activists from Mother Nation Movement, which was previously a registered NGO, started their bicycle campaign from Koh Kong town to Phnom Penh on Tuesday but were stopped and prevented from proceeding any further by local authorities on Wednesday, around 60 kilometers from Koh Kong town.
In a video posted on Facebook, the police can be seen snatching the bicycles from the activists and loading it onto a flatbed truck, with an unidentified official telling the group that they needed permission for the activity.
The police then took away 11 bicycles to the district police office and wanted to question the 18 campaigners and get them to sign agreements, which they refused.
“Initially, they said they wanted to check our temperature for COVID-19. But it was just an excuse,” said Rey Reaksa, an activist at Mother Nature.
“They asked for our identity card and wanted us to sign thumbprints on the paper they wrote, but we didn’t do it,” she said
Rey Reaksa said they were a small group – 11 on bicycles and seven support crew – and were unsure why they were prevented from continuing their campaign.
“We were just cycling and it didn’t affect the traffic,” she said. “I don’t know why the authorities banned this.”
Seang Hor, Koh Kong district police chief, and Samkhith Vean, chief of Koh Kong Provincial Police, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
Thorng Chandara, Koh Kong coordinator for local rights group ADHOC, said the police did not have the right to stop the campaign, and officials had given campaign more publicity than it might have got if the activists had been allowed to proceed.
“The ban drew more attention from the public,” he said. “The [freedom] of movement and speech of people in the local community is restricted. It is worse and worse.”
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights monitoring at Licadho, said stopping the bicyclists for COVID-19 concerns was an excuse to curtail their campaign.
“Maybe the authorities didn’t want the environmental activists to travel for the campaign,” he said. “It is very restrictive for their freedom of speech,” he added.
Sok Eysan, a spokesperson for the ruling party and a CPP senator, claimed the group had “bad intentions” with the campaign. Asked to identify a specific law they had violated, Sok Eysan said it was an attack on the government which was in charge of protecting the environment.
Mother Nature said they want to ensure that there is limited and sustainable tourism activity on Koh Kong Krav because they were concerned it could be exploited by private interests.