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Why environmental activism survives Cambodia’s destruction of civil society

The Cambodian government has to claim to be committed to climate action. So it really doesn’t like people who point out the lie. 

For years, the loudest critic has been Mother Nature, a group of environmental activists formed in 2013 that has often run afoul of the authorities.

In 2021, several members of the group documented waste run-off into Phnom Penh’s Tonle Sap river, near the royal palace. This was linked to companies run by some well-connected individuals. 

For this, they were charged with plotting against the government and insulting the king, two charges that prosecutors never even tried to prove in a trial that ended on July 2 with ten Mother Nature activists being sentenced to between six and eight years in jail.

Three were also convicted of defaming King Norodom Sihamoni, receiving sentences of eight years in prison. The other seven got six years behind bars. 

Cambodian environmental activist Phuon Keoraksmey is arrested outside the Phnom Penh municipal court after a verdict on July 2, 2024. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

Five of the ten are currently in hiding or exile. They were tried in absentia. That includes the founder of Mother Nature, Spanish environmentalist Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, who was deported from Cambodia in 2015.

It was “another crushing blow to Cambodia’s civil society,” said Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for research, Montse Ferrer. Igor Driesmans, the EU ambassador to Phnom Penh, tweeted that he is “deeply concerned about increasing persecution and arrests of human rights defenders in Cambodia.” 

Indeed, Cambodia’s civil society is now a mere whisper of what it once was. Since 2017, it has been systematically dismantled.

The trade union movement has been broken up, while NGOs have been destroyed by lawsuits and jailings. Some middle-class liberals have been bought off with government jobs and promises of reform when Hun Manet, the son of the long-serving premier, inherited the prime ministership last year. 


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Splintering of activists

However, unlike all other forms of activism that came before, environmentalism has endured. That’s partly because groups like Mother Nature refused to self-censor. But it is also structural.

In the past, civil activism was disparate. Cambodia had a strong trade union movement, but this was only in the garment factories. It had loud middle-class urbanites, but they stayed in the cities and campaigned for liberal reforms. 

People in the countryside protested when their land was taken away and given to well-connected businesses, but they rarely connected with other groups. 

The now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party brought some of the voices under one roof for a brief period between 2012 and 2017, but once the party was dissolved that year, on laughable accusations of plotting a coup, the civil activist groups splintered. 

Not environmentalism, however. That’s because, unlike most other causes, it unites rural folk and urbanites, rich and poor, nationalists and cosmopolitans. It is intensely patriotic, whereas some other campaigns could be rebuked as un-Cambodian. And it doesn’t grapple with abstracts. 

Debates about human rights and democracy are messy. There are spectrums. There’s subjectivity. Only at the extremes can one see authoritarianism in action. 

Cambodia security officers clash with a union member near the National Assembly during a protest against the trade union law in Phnom Penh, April 4, 2016. (Samrang Pring/Reuters)

The Cambodian authorities don’t arrest hundreds of people daily. There is no public flogging. You can spend your entire life keeping your head low and avoiding the jackboot.

But the environmental cause is different. 

Cambodians pass a river and see how more polluted it gets each day. They can watch the forests disappear. They  can experience the droughts that are now more common. They can see where the lakes once were, now filled in for construction. 

If their house is flooded because the land around them has been destroyed and built over, that creates a more immediate sensation of grief and anger than reading that the U.S. has downgraded Cambodia to the lowest Tier 3 ranking for money laundering. 

Environmentalism threatens a corrupt state

Whereas a propagandist can dismiss human rights and democracy with claims of “Asian Values” and the need for social stability over individual rights, no one can explain away deforestation, mass pollution, and environmental destruction as anything other than a crime against the nation itself.

That’s why environmentalism poses such risks for autocratic regimes. It’s ridiculous the courts ruled that the Mother Nature activists plotted against the state. But, in a sense, the cause does threaten the state. 

What it reveals is just how much Cambodia’s political system is a criminal racket.  

Cambodia’s political system is feudal-ish: It’s a  political aristocracy, composed of corrupt and incestuous families, rules. But it depends on the money and patronage of economic barons, the financiers. 

Money flows up and favors flow down. Those favors include illegal logging, land grabs, industrial pollution, and the destruction of waterways. 

Volunteer students and Buddhist monks collect plastic waste from a sewage canal to set an example and educate people on proper plastic disposal in Phnom Penh on Oct. 28, 2023. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

The tycoons may donate some money to some good causes, but the environmentalists come along and point out that this money was made by destroying the country’s natural resources. 

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claims to represent the “people of the soil,” but the environmentalists show that it puts the interest of capital above the interests of the people. 

The CPP derides its opponents as cosmopolitans bought and owned by the West, but the environmentalists prove that the CPP government has presided over the utter gutting of Cambodia’s natural wealth, frequently by foreign-owned companies.

Ly Chandaravuth, one of the activists jailed this week, said this before the trial: “When [political elites] destroy our country, they have taken on new nationalities; they have millions of dollars; they can run to live in other countries when our country is destroyed, leaving only us who live in this country. If we don’t protect our country, we will be victims in the future.”

Greens are hard to silence

Cambodia is starting to experience something similar to what began in Vietnam in the late 2000s when environmentalism and nationalism morphed into a new, powerful force. 

In 2008, Vietnamese activists, including war-era generals, sparked a new movement after lambasting the ruling Communist Party for selling off Vietnamese land to Chinese bauxite miners. 

Ever since, eco-nationalism has been the trigger for Vietnam’s largest protests. The communist authorities have no response other than repression when the government is derided for not only destroying the country’s habitat but for doing it to get a quick Chinese buck.

It matters on another level, too. 

The likes of Cambodia now see climate action as a basis for international aid diplomacy. 

Promise some Hail-Mary green goal and the European Union will ignore all of your other vices. Laud Beijing as the Global South’s environmental savior and you get investment capital from China. Talk about renewable energy infrastructure and Japan is at the front of the queue with bags full of cash. 

Washington isn’t so easily bought off with green platitudes, but talk about climate action in terms of self-sufficiency – meaning less dependency on China – and the U.S. gets on board, too.

Cambodian environmental activists Ly Chandaravuth, right, Phun Keoraksmey, second from right, Thun Ratha, second from left, Long Kunthea, left, sit outside Phnom Penh municipal court on July 2, 2024. (Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)

The sums involved for this green agenda are in the tens of billions. Most of the money is essential for economic development. Much of it flows into companies or ventures controlled by political elites or the economic barrons. 

This means that there’s a lot on the line when homegrown environmentalists point out that the government is lying about its green agenda, that the government isn’t as green as it pretends. So all the more reason for regimes to see eco-nationalism as an existential threat. 

The fact of the matter is that the Mother Nature activists will now have to endure the hell of prison for years. But their cause will persist. 

Autocratic regimes like Cambodia’s cannot silence the eco-nationalists because their revelations are obvious to all.

Cambodians don’t need to understand theories of democracy to see that their forests are disappearing, that their rivers are overflowing with filth, that droughts are now more common and their crops are becoming harder to grow, or that their land is being torn apart by an elite that will never have to suffer the consequences.

David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and the Southeast Asia Columnist at the Diplomat. He writes the Watching Europe In Southeast Asia newsletter. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of RFA.