Mother Nature activists were “gathering strength for an uprising” as evidenced by a Zoom conference where they insulted government leaders and the king, while three arrested activists acknowledged they wanted people to rise up, the Interior Ministry said.
In a statement on Wednesday, the Interior Ministry defended the arrests of the environmental activists as necessary, and accused them of wanting to manipulate and incite people to gather and cause chaos in society. The statement came after criticism from social media users, foreign embassies and NGOs over the arrests.
The ministry accused the group’s co-founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davison, of continuing to be a part of Mother Nature and conducting illegal acts even though he was expelled from Cambodia on February 23, 2015.
On May 14 this year, Gonzalez-Davidson conducted a meeting with three activists where they used “serious, insulting words” against the king and government leaders, the ministry said.
“This action is a plan to incite, to ignite national division, and [it] violated the Cambodian Constitution with the aim of causing social insecurity and impacting national stability such that the competent authorities must take legal action,” it said.
The ministry referred to a confiscated video clip as evidence, saying it clearly shows that previous actions by the “illegal network” under the banner of Mother Nature were not honest about protecting natural resources. “Instead, their actions were manipulations aiming to incite, provoke, and [they were] gathering strength for an uprising, to create chaos in society,” it said.
Government-aligned Fresh News on Tuesday posted a video of a Zoom meeting purportedly from the same day, where activists discussed a cartoon sketch of Prime Minister Hun Sen wearing a royal crown. Some of the participants used words lacking in respect when referring to various leaders.
“In this photo, it shows that nowadays, the uncle is the one who has the rights to everything,” one woman says in the video posted by Fresh News. “Even if the king has the crown, the king still has no right to do anything. General people know.”
The Interior Ministry added on Wednesday that the three arrested activists — Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy and Ly Chandaravuth — had accepted the accusations.
“The testimonies of the three suspects also accepted that they acted under the banner of Mother Nature but really wanted to have an uprising [that would] lead to toppling the government through means that are opposite of the principles of multiparty democracy as stipulated in Cambodia’s Constitution,” the ministry said.
The group was registered as an NGO in 2012, but it requested the license be revoked in 2017, the ministry said. Mother Nature has said it was an effort to prevent the repeated harassment and arrests of its members, but the Interior Ministry said “Mother Nature has no legal standing in performing their work.”
The Interior Ministry’s statement came after both local and international NGOs, as well as foreign embassies and social media users, condemned the arrests and called for the activists’ release.
According to a French Embassy Facebook post, ambassador Eva Nguyen Binh met Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Wednesday morning and raised the arrests of the young environmentalists.
Rights groups say Ratha and Chandaravuth were arrested on the Phnom Penh riverside while photographing sewage flowing into the river. Leanghy was arrested in Kandal province, after his wife accompanied him to the district police station.
Mother Nature has a history of strident environmental campaigns in which they point fingers at government officials for being culpable in allowing or facilitating the destruction of nature.
Three other activists from the group were arrested in September, and Mother Nature members hid their identities in subsequent video campaigns.