Cambodian police arrest 13 activists trying to protect an island from deforestation

Koh Kong is Cambodia's largest island, but hard to reach from the mainland. Young protesters, including a German, have organised a series of meetings to raise awareness of environmental risks to the place. Satellite images show forest loss from logging, an activity facilitated by the presence of the Cambodian Navy on the island.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Cambodian authorities arrested and then released 13 young environmental activists who organised a protest recently to raise public awareness about the situation on Koh Kong, the country’s largest island.

Covering an area of 103 square kilometres, the island is little known to the Cambodians since it is hard to reach from the mainland, but it is threatened by deforestation.

Wearing the same T-shirts that called for the island’s protection, the protesters, members of a group called Mother Nature, carried banners in Khmer and English that read: "Sunday for Koh Kong Island”.

The group has been holding weekly meetings to inform and encourage debate among Cambodians. “We take Sundays to discuss Koh Kong,” said Mean Lisa, a young woman and one of the protesters, speaking to Radio Free Asia (RFA).

“[W]e want to encourage young people from all walks of life and the public to get involved in protecting the environment and natural resources. Third, we want the ministry to honour its promise to make Koh Kong Krau a marine national park."

In 2016, Cambodia’s Environment Ministry said that its experts had been studying Koh Kong and that it expected to turn it into a national park by 2021.

In 2020, RFA had revealed, however, that a businessman close to then Prime Minister Hun Sen had obtained a licence to develop parts of the island.

Police arrested the activists on Sunday, around 9:30 am, including a German who was a friend of one of the Cambodian activists. They questioned and asked them to write down personal information and explain the purpose of the rally.

On social media, the Phnom Penh municipal police said that Mother Nature activists had acted illegally, compromising safety, security, and public order – it also noted that the group had not informed the authorities in advance about their gathering.

After eight hours in custody, all 13 were released. "We were put in a closed room for several hours," Lisa said, adding that, “We experienced harassment and discrimination from the police while we were there. My foreign friend was forced to take off his shirt in front of everyone else to change into a normal shirt, which is a form of harassment."

On the environmental group’s website, the island is described as “a pristine environment, mainly comprised of dense tropical evergreen forest,” but is threatened by (often illegal) logging whereas it could be converted into an ecotourism destination.

The activists' concerns are confirmed by satellite data. According to an investigation published last year on Mongabay, logging practices on the island are favoured by the presence of a Cambodian Navy unit, which has already been accused of facilitating illegal timber trade in the past.

According to residents, officers control almost every aspect of daily life, and local officials prefer not to investigate into the activities of the military.