Environmental Activists in Cambodia Are Resorting to Disguises to Avoid Arrests

The group has gone to extraordinary lengths to try and protect their identities amid a crackdown.

Aug 13 2021, 6:43am

Masks, puppets and altered voices—a group of Cambodian activists have resorted to a series of increasingly creative methods over the years to shield their identities in a country where exposing environmental abuses poses serious risks.

Mother Nature was founded in 2013 to help local communities highlight wrongdoing, from illegal logging to sand dredging and pollution. But its work has not gone down well with powerful businesses or the government. Its Spanish co-founder was deported and has been sentenced to jail time in absentia, while several of its members have been arrested, sentenced or are currently facing trial.

While rights groups say Prime Minister Hun Sen has long used force to deal with opponents, a broad crackdown that started in 2017 with the forced dissolution of the main opposition party has seen more than 100 critics, activists and journalists detained. Many are accused of incitement or related charges.

Despite the risks to environmental defenders and an increasingly shrinking space for freedom of expression and media, Mother Nature has carved out a following in the Southeast Asian country where social media use is booming, amassing more than 400,000 followers on Facebook.

A disguised Mother Nature activist films in a national park in Cambodia. Image courtesy of Mother Nature

“I am very worried about [being arrested], but I won’t allow that fear to bother me or to stop me from doing what I believe is the right thing to do,” said one of Mother Nature’s members, who goes by the pseudonym Miss Penguin. She asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from authorities.

“The method that our team has taken is very tough. And I think it’s not as effective as revealing our faces and our real voice, but for the safety of our team and for us to be able to continue our work, we have to endure it.”

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She hopes their “bizarre and strange activities” can potentially attract people to pay attention to the issues.

“The method that our team has taken is very tough. And I think it’s not as effective as revealing our faces and our real voice, but for the safety of our team and for us to be able to continue our work, we have to endure it.”

In a video released in November last year, a Mother Nature activist is seen wearing a black hoodie and a mask with the face of another member of the NGO who remains under arrest. The video requests that authorities free those in detention. The background is a forest and Mother Nature logo. “We will not remain silent,” the person said in an altered voice recording.

Another video from February about precious metal tax revenue features an activist wearing a big yellow hoodie, a pair of grey gloves and an Iron Man mask. The person is joined by an activist dressed similarly but in a Venetian-style mask. The two also have their voices manipulated.

An environmental activist in Cambodia wearing a disguise in a video. Image courtesy of Mother Nature

The colorful and dramatic presentations are attracting bigger and bigger audiences. One of its clips released in January last year raising concerns over environmental damage from the overwhelming use of plastic bags racked up more than one million views. 

After two of its members were arrested four years ago for filming a vessel which they had suspected to have smuggled sand, Mother Nature introduced talking puppets to narrate its videos. One shows the puppet, named Aseiha, discussing the filling of mangroves in a wildlife sanctuary because of sand dredging.

But these different strategies are changing constantly as the group thinks about the long-term impact on the country’s environmental movement. The puppets, for instance, were abandoned as some activists wanted to show their faces and inspire other young Cambodians, according to Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, the Spanish national who was expelled from the country in 2015. The puppets were also confiscated by the authorities after Mother Nature’s studio in Phnom Penh was raided in September last year. 

“We started covering the activists' faces and distorting their voices after yet another completely arbitrary jailing of three of our activists this last September. The aim was to try and minimize risks against the people in the team,” said Gonzalez-Davidson. 

A puppet named Aseiha was used as a stand-in for some videos. Image courtesy of Mother Nature

Gonzalez-Davidson himself is staring down lengthy jail time if he returns to the country. He was sentenced to 20 months in jail in May due to his work with the group. He was also charged in a separate case last month in which Mother Nature members were accused of insulting the king.

Facing prison sentences of five to ten years, he acknowledged that the method of disguises won’t guarantee its members zero risk, but said they require authorities to “devote more resources” to repress them. 

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Since September last year, at least six members of Mother Nature have been arrested, charged and convicted in relation to their work. They include Ly Chandaravuth, 22, Yim Leanghy, 32, and Sun Ratha, 26, who were detained in June and face up to 10 years in prison after filming sewage being released into the Tonle Sap River near the Royal Palace in capital Phnom Penh. Authorities accused them of plotting and lese-majeste. 

In another case, Thun Rotha, 29, Long Kunthea, 22, and Phuong Keo Raksmey, 19 were in May sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison for planning a one-person march, which authorities claimed amounted to “incitement to commit a felony or disturb social order.” The trio have also been charged with “plotting” after the arrest of their colleagues in June.

A portrait of the puppet Aseiha. Image courtesy of Mother Nature

United Nations agencies and international rights monitors have condemned the arrests.

“We are living in the midst of an environmental crisis. Civil society which peacefully advocates for the environment is a fundamental partner in addressing the challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution,” said Dechen Tsering, the UN Environment Programme’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

According to the UN, at least 24 human rights defenders are in detention in Cambodia. Twelve of them are women. 

Naly Pilorge, the director of Cambodia-based rights group LICADHO, called the arrests of Mother Nature members “a tragedy,” especially since the effects of climate change and environmental destruction are “worsening across the world.”

“These young activists want to protect the environment for current and future generations, and in response their government has charged them with crimes that could see them imprisoned for up to 10 years,” she told VICE World News, adding that they are detained in crowded prisons in the middle of the pandemic. 

“These young activists want to protect the environment for current and future generations, and in response their government has charged them with crimes that could see them imprisoned for up to 10 years.”

She hopes the authorities release the activists so they could reunite with their families during a difficult time. 

Government spokesperson Phay Siphan told VICE World News that the arrests were carried out in accordance with the law, referring additional questions to the Ministry of Justice and the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). A spokesperson for the CHRC, Chin Malin said decisions about the cases are now with the court system. 

But regardless of the arrests, the team is still active in the field. Gonzalez-Davidson said they are already coming up with new ideas to protect them from identification and targeting.

They are worried and terrified, but said they turn this fear into a source of energy to continue their mission. 

“Even though almost all of our members have been arrested, confined, are scared and doing nothing…I’m daring to sacrifice my happiness now for the sake of prosperity in the future,” said Miss Penguin.

Follow Bopha Phorn on Twitter.

Tagged:

climate change, cambodia, worldnews, world environment, climate change 2021

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