More than 100 villagers from rural Cambodia were detained briefly by the authorities in Phnom Penh after handing out leaflets detailing how government land concessions are affecting their lives.
Early Thursday, about 120 villagers gathered to pray at a Buddhist shrine on the riverfront in Phnom Penh.
Many were dressed in outfits designed to evoke a Cambodian version of the hit film "Avatar," which depicts the struggle of an alien race battling to save their forest from commercial exploitation. Protesters had green painted faces, green shirts and wore a green leaf as a hat.
Raising awareness of deforestation
They said they had come to the capital to let the public know of the troubles they face in rural areas where huge tracts of forest have been leased to domestic and foreign businesses.
Villager Kao Chart, who traveled from the northeastern province Kratie, said the forests are being cleared and people like him are losing their livelihoods. He said 20 people came from his area, and are praying to the Buddha for help. He also said taking care of the environment is a priority.
A community group said similar gatherings took place in 145 other locations across Cambodia. The claim could not be confirmed, but a nationwide effort would mark an unusual degree of cooperation on a social issue in Cambodia, where activism tends to be local and small-scale.
Land issues, however, are a significant problem affecting many communities.
Earlier this week, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a local non-profit organization, released a report showing that ownership of at least five percent of land, nationwide, had been disputed in the past four years.
CCHR estimates that 47,000 families are either at risk of land conflict or had been affected by it.
One threatened area in the news recently was Prey Lang, the largest lowland evergreen forest in the region. Large tracts of this unprotected forest recently have been leased to rubber plantations.
Villager Kao Chart, who relies on Prey Lang for a living, said he is optimistic that coming to Phnom Penh would raise awareness of the problems. He said he hopes the demonstration will attract more support, and that the government must control deforestation.
After the prayer session concluded, the villagers dispersed around the capital and started handing out leaflets that highlight the importance of preserving the forest.
But within an hour or so, the authorities had detained more than 100 members of the group. All were released shortly after promising they would not hand out leaflets again without permission.
Despite repeated calls, a ministry of interior spokesman was not available to comment on the detentions or the government’s reasons for preventing the leaflets from being distributed.
Three prominent rights groups spoke out against the detentions and the ban on distributing fliers. They said authorities had claimed the act of distribution could disrupt social order.
Ou Virak, who heads the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the real reason for the detentions was that such the protests threaten the ability of the elite to exploit Cambodia’s natural resources.