At least 10 environmental activists, including a Spanish national, were detained in Koh Kong province Monday after they attempted to prevent officials from reaching a community of ethnic minority villagers who have been protesting plans for a hydropower dam that would flood their ancestral home and a critical wildlife habitat.
Provincial deputy police chief Nhem Dara confirmed that Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a citizen of Spain and co-founder of local NGO Mother Nature, was temporarily detained for blocking a convoy of government vehicles attempting to reach the community of ethnic Chong living in the Areng Valley, and for lacking proper identification.
“We arrested him because he didn’t have proper documents,” Mr. Dara said. “Also, he is a foreigner, so why was he was disrupting authorities who wanted to visit the villagers?”
Mr. Dara said that as of Monday evening, nine activists were still detained at police headquarters in Koh Kong City, but that Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson had been released earlier in the day.
“Alex was released after questioning because it was a petty offense and he confessed to his mistake and agreed to apologize to the provincial governor,” he said.
Deputy provincial governor Phon Lyvirak said he had been leading a delegation of 25 officials into the Areng Valley to negotiate with the Chong families, who are calling for the dam project to be canceled, when they were blocked.
“We just invited them for questioning because they were blocking the road when authorities wanted to visit the villagers,” he said.
“Mr. Alex used his car to block the road. They accused us of betraying the nation and of deforestation, and they asked us for permission letters,” he said. “I told them I was the deputy provincial governor and that we came to visit the villagers who would be affected by the dam, to find a solution for them.”
Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson could not be reached.
Mother Nature member Heng Samnang said he had been present at the scene of the roadblock when police arrived to help the government convoy pass but left the area before anyone was detained, out of concern for his own safety.
Mr. Samnang claimed that more than 10 activists were taken into custody, but said he did not know the exact number.
In Kongchet, coordinator for rights group Licadho in Koh Kong, was not at the scene but said the activists detained Monday included members of both Mother Nature and the Khmer Youth Empire, another NGO that has taken up the Areng Valley villagers’ cause.
Mr. Kongchet said he suspected that authorities had ventured into the valley with the express intention of taking the activists into custody.
“I think the authorities intended to create an offense to break up the group, because they have prevented authorities from getting to the dam site [before],” he said.
For the past several months, the Areng Valley villagers and their supporters have been manning a roadblock at the scene of Monday’s standoff around the clock, determined to prevent any attempt to start construction on the 108-megawatt Stung Areng dam planned by Chinese firm Sinohydro and backed by CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin.
It is estimated that the dam, if built, would flood 20,000 hectares of land and force 1,500 people to relocate.
Last month, about 40 members of Mother Nature and the Khmer Youth Empire gathered in Phnom Penh for a planned bicycle tour around the city to hand out leaflets promoting their cause. But police prevented the activists from setting off, saying the group had failed to submit a request letter to City Hall.
The detention of Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson on Monday closely follows the arrest and overnight detention last week of a Japanese-American employee of housing-rights group Equitable Cambodia, Meg Fukuzawa, who had been interviewing villagers evicted to make way for a Thai sugarcane plantation once tied to CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat.
The detentions come in the midst of an ongoing nationwide census that has seen the deportation of dozens of foreign nationals, including citizens of the U.S., Russia, India, China and Nigeria.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)
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