"Donors should insist that the Cambodian government stop its harassment of environmental advocates," said Mike Jendrzejczyk, Washington director of Asia Division at Human Rights Watch. "The Cambodian government should respect people's rights to have a say in how forest resources are managed. Forest management should not be exempt from democratic processes."
Cambodian police used excessive force to disperse a non-violent gathering of community representatives at the Department of Forestry and Wildlife (DFW) on December 5 in Phnom Penh. Witnesses state that at around 6:00 p.m. approximately 50 security officials, including commune police, military police, Ministry of Interior intervention police, and "Flying Tiger" motorcycle police, arrived to break up a gathering of about 150 community representatives from the provinces. They had been waiting all day for a response from DFW to their request for a workshop on logging concession management plans. After police trucks blocked access to the road, the police surrounded and then descended on the crowd, using whistles to coordinate their actions.
Eyewitnesses reported that policemen kicked and shoved community representatives and hit them with electric shock batons. Eleven representatives were later treated for injuries, including five who said they had been shocked by electric batons. That evening, one of the representatives, Hem Sao, 29, a village chief from Preah Vihear, died. Doctors at Preah Kossamak Hospital said his death appeared to have been from a heart attack. It has not been established whether his death was caused by the actions of the police.
Human Rights Watch calls upon the government to undertake an independent and impartial investigation of the incident and discipline or prosecute as appropriate all police officers who used or authorized excessive force. This should include a full investigation into the causes of death of Hem Sao.
"By deploying police to beat people at a peaceful gathering, the Cambodian government is sending the message that it doesn't care about the environment or the rights of its people to have a say in policies that affect their livelihoods," said Jendrzejczyk.
Since the incident, state television has repeatedly claimed that the government's official forestry monitor, Global Witness - a non-governmental organization (NGO) that operates under a formal agreement with the government - and other NGOs fabricated claims of violence at the incident, and that Global Witness incited protests for political purposes. On December 20, Secretary of State for Information Khieu Kanharith stated that the government would pursue legal action against Eva Galabru, country coordinator for Global Witness. The government also says it is considering terminating Global Witness's role as an official monitor.
"The Cambodian government appears to be attempting to intimidate and silence a group that is internationally respected for its monitoring of illegal logging," said Jendrzejczyk. "Any attempt to remove the organization as the official forestry monitor would demonstrate the government's utter lack of commitment to combating illegal logging and other forestry crimes."
Since the December 5 incident, DFW and provincial officials have questioned community forestry advocates in Kratie, Kompong Thom, Stung Treng, Mondolkiri, and Preah Vihear provinces about their activities in Phnom Penh. In several provinces, forestry officials have convened meetings in which villagers have been pressured to thumbprint documents that they cannot read, expressing support for the logging concessions.
In early December, the offices of Setrey Santepheap Daembei Parethan (SSDP, or Peaceful Women for Environment), a grassroots environmental organization in Kratie, were broken into while project staff were in Phnom Penh. SSDP focuses on communities located within forest concessions in Kratie, Stung Treng, and Mondolkiri provinces. Two boxes of files, maps, photographs, video equipment and a television were taken. On December 17, 18 policemen, accompanied by a forestry official, arrived to make an appointment with the organization's director. The next day, the police interrogated the director for an entire day not so much about the break-in, but about the organization, its staff, and what they had been doing in Phnom Penh. Detailed biographical data was recorded about the director and her family.
"It appears that the government wants to put an end to grassroots movements of villagers who are informed and concerned about national forestry polices and the ongoing illegal logging in their communities," said Jendrzejczyk. "Rather than intimidating concerned citizens, the government should be encouraging attempts at participation and dialogue, particularly on an issue like forestry reform that affects the livelihoods of so many Cambodians."
Community representatives from half a dozen provinces where logging concessions are located have pushed for months for DFW to allow public review of forestry concession management plans, as called for in the sub-decree on Forest Concession Management. Several NGOs working in community forestry, including Oxfam-GB and the NGO Forum, have supported the villagers' efforts.
On October 29, DFW announced a 19-day disclosure period for public review of concession strategic management plans and environmental and social impact assessments. Despite the short timeline, community representatives were able to conduct community consultations in dozens of villages. The focus was in forested areas adjacent to logging concessions, where villagers' livelihoods depend on forests and non-timber forest products such as bamboo, resin, rattan and herbs.
The consultations consisted of village representatives and elected commune officials explaining the concessions to villagers, followed by discussion and preparation of comments to submit to DFW. In Ratanakiri and Stung Treng, the provincial governors endorsed the whole consultation process, forwarding the community submissions from the commune councils to DFW and asking for a response to the community requests.
The community representatives, many of them elected commune council members or village chiefs, returned to Phnom Penh in late November, where they attended workshops convened by Oxfam UK and the NGO Forum to prepare submissions for each concession company.
On December 2 many of the community representatives went to the offices of DFW to check on submissions. They waited outside DFW all day long but no officials met with them in an official capacity. They were told that DFW would go to their villages to hold consultations there. The following day, the community representatives met with King Norodom Sihanouk.
On December 5, approximately 20 villagers went to DFW to present a written request for a three-day workshop with forestry officials to discuss the concession management plans. Their letter was not accepted. Over the course of the day, more villagers arrived, until there were about 150 people squatting outside the gate to DFW. At 6:00 p.m., security officers moved in to disperse the crowd, reportedly injuring at least 11 people.