It’s no secret that Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen has made life increasingly difficult for civil society organizations, and few groups have borne the brunt of this intolerance as much as Mother Nature. It’s an environmental watchdog that has campaigned vigorously against the destruction of Cambodia’s natural habitat caused in the name of development that oftentimes profits individuals and companies that are tied with Hun Sen. On May 5, five members of Mother Nature were sentenced to between 18 and 20 months in prison by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for supposed “incitement to create social chaos.” Amnesty International called the convictions “outrageous.”
The founder of Mother Nature, Alejandro (Alex) Gonzalez-Davidson, was among two of the five who were convicted in absentia. The other three are imprisoned in Cambodia. Gonzalez-Davidson spoke to Matthew Pennington at Radio Free Asia two days after the court rulings. A fluent Khmer speaker, Alex spent 13 years in Cambodia before he was deported for his activism in 2015. He has continued to lead Mother Nature from outside the country. He’s a Spanish national and has been denied a visa return to Cambodia, even to attend his own trial. The interview has been edited in parts for clarity.
RFA: So first of all, what’s your reaction to these sentences?
Alex: We weren’t expecting such a harsh sentence, to be very honest. We were expecting a year, perhaps even less than that. It’s one guy, two women. The women are 19 and 22. The guy’s 28. All are really good friends of mine. They’ve been in jail since September of last year. So we’re very much shocked, very sad to receive that kind of news. Not so much for the three people in jail because they’re really strong activists. I’m more concerned about the families and the rest of the (Mother Nature) team. We’ve got a lot of activists who are not in jail. I’m more concerned about their level of fear and what effect this will have on Cambodia’s civil society in general and the general population, especially young Cambodian people.
RFA: It seems like a very significant ruling. Can you tell us a bit about why they were arrested in the first place?
We’ve been doing videos which have gone viral inside Cambodia for seven years now, and we’ve been doing campaigning with local communities, sometimes successfully. We’ve managed to stop a hydroelectric dam which was not about electricity — it was about corruption and logging. We managed to force the Hun Sen regime, the government of Cambodia, to stop large scale extraction of sand which was being exported to Singapore, which was devastating local fisheries. And we’ve exposed many other issues. This is not the first time we’ve had people jailed or harassed. I myself was detained and deported in 2015. We’ve got five people in jail already. So they knew who we were. They were afraid of the effectiveness of our campaign.
RFA: I understand that the three jailed this week were arrested back in September when they were planning to stage a march.
Alex: For a few weeks before that we’d started a new campaign. Actually we started two campaigns. One of them was trying to protect the nation’s biggest island (Koh Kong) which is very pristine and beautiful. We started another campaign trying to stop the government filling in Phnom Penh’s largest lake and wetland (Boeung Tamok).
We decided to do a one-woman march: (Long Kunthea) walking for three kilometers all dressed in white, alone, and another woman, 19-year-old Phuong Keo Raksmey, she would be recording and live streaming, and then Thun Ratha, he would be basically in the conversation from his own home, live streaming it through social media. So that was our plan. And the idea was to walk towards the residence of the prime minister. A few hours before the march started, they arrested the three activists and confiscated pretty much everything that the organization owned — cameras, laptops etc.
RFA: This is basically showing zero tolerance for a peaceful demonstration.
Alex: I mean it wasn’t really even a demonstration. We knew that demonstrations are risky in Cambodia. There have been some activists quite close to us jailed a few weeks before for demonstrating. So we thought let’s not demonstrate, let’s not protest. Don’t hold any signs. Don’t ask for people to come and join you. Just walk alone and we will get our audience through social media. But they still arrested them and they were quickly charged and they were sent to pretrial detention where they’ve been since September. So, a very, very harsh reaction. We were definitely not expecting that because I mean, effectively no law was broken whatsoever.
RFA: Now I understand that you were convicted and sentenced for “conspiracy to incitement” although you weren’t actually in Cambodia at the time. You weren’t able to attend your trial. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Alex: This is the second time that this happened to me. The first time was in late 2015 and I demanded my right to be present at the trial. It was a different campaign. That was about illegal extraction of sand to export to Singapore. And back then, as it has happened this time, they’ve issued arrest warrants, but the Ministry of Interior which is in charge of issuing visas has never agreed to issue me a visa so I could defend myself at trial. This time, the same thing. My lawyer asked again and again.
The court this time was even more obscure. They didn’t even allow the lawyer to make public the documents which prove that I have been accused because they knew that I would use those documents to publicly say I’m more than happy to go to Cambodia, even if that means jail time, so at the very least I can expose to quite a large audience inside Cambodia and outside Cambodia the whole travesty of it. So, yes, I’ve been charged with conspiracy to incite social disorder, social chaos, even though I’ve not been in the country for over six years and all we do is videos on Facebook. We’re not a political party. We don’t even engage in large-scale protests. It’s quite telling of the level of paranoia the Hun Sen regime is currently going through.
RFA: Can we step back a little bit and you tell us how you got involved in Cambodia in the first place. You’re renowned for your ability to speak the Khmer language, which I think has been a driving force in your success as an activist. How did you end up in Cambodia?
Alex: I ended up in Cambodia not for activism reasons, not for nature protection reasons. I just went as a 21-year-old thinking, it’s a good way to escape European winters. So when I got to Cambodia, I thought this is a nice place to be for a few months a year. And I was working as an English teacher and I did that for seven years. And then eventually my language got good enough so I could be a translator. So I was translating from English to Khmer, and then in 2010-2011, I came to the realization that under the facade of development, the destruction of the environment was being done at an alarming rate.
I understood how it was being done, why it was being done, by who, because I was able to understand the context and the language. And I was able to speak with people who were being affected by these hydroelectric dams, gold mining, logging, forced land evictions. And I understood that this was very much a state-sponsored crime, under the facade of development. And then in April 2012, when I was still in the private sector working as a translator, a very well-known activist, Chut Wutty, was shot in his car. And the day he was shot I decided that it was my turn to become more public about it or at least less fearful because I was quite fearful.
So in 2012 to 2013 I started doing videos on Facebook. I started doing interviews in Khmer and with international media about some of the most pressing environmental issues and it took the Hun Sen dictatorship a year-and-a-half to deport me from the first video that I did on Facebook.
After 13 years in Cambodia, I saw myself blacklisted. That does not stop me from continuing to work remotely or meeting our activists in places like Thailand etc, and helping as much as I can from a distance, and my fight toward a better environment and better human rights in Cambodia is going to continue despite massive obstacles that seem to be growing by the day.
RFA: Hun Sen has always been ruthless in terms of suppressing political opponents or dissent, but it seems the situation for anyone who speaks out against the government or against their interests has gotten worse in the past few years. Can NGOs like Mother Nature still operate effectively?
We continue to do investigations and videos. We have the obstacle of Covid-19, so it’s not easy to move around from place to place. But we’ve continued to do videos, but the difference with the videos is that our activists have to hide their faces and we have to distort their voices. Because I think it’s pretty clear that they will be jailed automatically if they don’t disguise their identities. Other than that, you can continue doing it. But I agree that the space for civil society, the opposition party and independent media, to operate, to tell the truth and to do their job is shrinking alarmingly. That has been the case since late 2015. I mean it was never a healthy democracy anyway, but it was improving and then in late 2015, you just see this dismantling, step by step.
Of the few good things that Cambodia had — quite a healthy civil society, a few independent media outlets which were quite strong including Radio Free Asia — the regime has been attacking them relentlessly. And I think there’s two reasons behind that. One of them is the influence of China. I think the Chinese Communist Party has agreed to support them politically and economically. So no matter how much criticism they get internationally, China is there with the Hun Sen regime. And the second reason I think is that the Hun Sen regime has realized that this is what they have to do to stay in charge because if they continue with this half-baked democracy, half-baked elections — even if they are only half-free –and-fair — they will still lose because their popularity levels are basically plummeting. Hun Sen and his cronies realize that if they want to cling onto power and continue making billions and billions out of the exploitation of natural resources, corruption etc, they have to basically eliminate all forms of opposition.
RFA: So are there still many young people out there who are willing to take the risk and engage in this kind of environmental campaigning that you’re involved in?
Yes and no. I think that after such a repressive move — jailing people relentlessly since August of last year for doing a video, or for cycling, or basically expressing one’s opinion — that scares people. So this really harsh guilty verdict will definitely scare a lot of people, but it will also create new activists. There’s a lot of young people who will be so scandalized by it that they will become activists. This is not different from what happened to me in 2012 when there was the assassination of Chut Wutty, the environmental activist. It scared a lot of people. But at the same time it created a new wave of activists: not just me but many other people. So I think it’s the same thing here. Now I speak daily with people like that, and one thing I tell them is that the status quo has changed. So we have to be smart. You have to be smart on digital security, physical security. You can’t just do the things that you were doing before because that could automatically mean jail. So go ahead, but stay safe, stay smart. Don’t just bury your head in the sand because that’s not going to save the country’s natural resources.