Areng villagers say they won't tear down community centre as ordered

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Members of a community dismantle a hut used for cooking near a local community centre, but have reportedly said they won't dismantle the centre itself as ordered by commune authorities last month. Photo supplied

Members of a community in the Areng Valley in Koh Kong province have decided they will not dismantle their community centre as ordered last month by Chumnap commune authorities, who claimed the move was necessary to make room for a new commune office.

Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, a co-founder of the environmental group Mother Nature, which has worked with the community, said he has learned that villagers will not bring down the community centre. Authorities had set Wednesday as the deadline for the centre to be dismantled and threatened to take legal action if the community didn’t take down the facility.

The community, however, did begin taking down a small hut nearby that was used for cooking, Gonzalez-Davidson said.

“We completely support their decision to not dismantle the center, as doing so would only favor the local authorities’ plan to further repress non-government voices in the valley,” he said in a message. “As a matter of fact, we will now try and find a way to expand the community center.”

Community members earlier this month asked Koh Kong Provincial Governor Mithona Phouthorng to help intervene in the matter in a video on Mother Nature’s official Facebook page.

Controversy has surrounded the centre in the past after then-commune Councillor Ven Vorn was convicted in 2016 of allegedly harvesting forestry products illegally to build the centre, and of tampering with evidence that he had done so.

The Koh Kong Provincial Court handed Vorn a one-year sentence, with seven months suspended.

At the time, human rights workers described Vorn’s conviction as a punishment for his activism against a hydropower dam in the area and his close association with Gonzalez-Davidson, who was later deported.