How Mother Nature duo followed their principles into activism — and a trial

Silica sand-dredging activity photographed by Mother Nature activists in Sihanoukville last year. Mother Nature
Silica sand-dredging activity photographed by Mother Nature activists in Sihanoukville last year. Mother Nature

When activists Hun Vannak and Dem Kundy went out in Koh Kong province on September 12 to document suspected sand transporting in the area, the risks of their activity were already apparent to them. In their work for former NGO Mother Nature, the pair had already faced repeated harassment.

In 2015, Kundy was briefly detained along with other activists and a rights worker while delivering a petition to the National Assembly to stop dredging in Koh Kong. And in August 2017, Vannak was arrested in Kandal province for flying a drone over an area where riverbank collapses appeared linked to nearby dredging.

Vannak and Kundy’s task in September appeared relatively mundane – to shoot video and take photographs of two alleged sand-bearing vessels off the coast of ruling party Senator Ly Yong Phat’s special economic zone in Kiri Sakor district.

They were swooped up by police, however, about 10 kilometres from where they had shot the footage, and now face charges of “incitement” and making unauthorised recordings of a person in “a private place” – charges that understandably raise eyebrows as the two were about 1 kilometre from the ships and on the open ocean while filming.

After more than four months in detention, their trial begins today at the Koh Kong Provincial Court, in the midst of a widespread crackdown on dissenting voices that has resulted in increased scrutiny for activists, and led Mother Nature to remove itself from the Interior Ministry's NGO registry.

For both Vannak, 35, and Kundy, 21, the decision to get involved in environmental activism had come relatively recently.

Vannak’s mother, Ty Mary, said her son had left the family-run phone business to become an activist after being born and raised in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district. He was close to Kem Ley, the political analyst murdered in 2016, and that year joined Mother Nature.

“He loves the environmental work, even though we warned him,” his mother said on Monday. “I used to tell him to stop because of safety concerns.”

She ultimately came around, she added, “but also told him that if it affects any senior officials, [he] would be arrested. He did not listen because he loved this work.”

Duong Saktheary (left) and Ty Mary (centre), the mothers of jailed environmental activists Dem Kundy and Hun Vanna, respectively, after delivering a petition to the Ministry of Environment this month.
Duong Saktheary (left) and Ty Mary (centre), the mothers of jailed environmental activists Dem Kundy and Hun Vanna, respectively, after delivering a petition to the Ministry of Environment this month. Pha Lina

Mary, who is a housekeeper, said she was distraught that her son had been jailed for what she views as simply protecting state property.

“It is not wrong to protect the natural resources for the benefit of the nation and all the people,” she said. “The government or court should have examined the [sand case] . . . This is the work of the government, but they are keeping quiet.”

Vannak’s role as an activist for Mother Nature was to use social media platforms to expose abuses, according to the NGO’s co-founder, Alex Gonzalez-Davidson.

“Vannak’s mission was to publicize, through social media, injustices in Cambodia, especially those related to the environment and to malpractices and human rights abuses by the state,” he said in a message.

Kundy, meanwhile, comes from a modest background and dropped out of school in ninth grade due to poor living conditions after his mother, Doung Satkheary, left to work in Malaysia as a maid in 2010. She returned in 2012 and now works at a restaurant in Phnom Penh.

As a teenager, Kundy sold newspapers before joining Mother Nature in late 2013 and moving to the Areng Valley through 2015, Gonzalez-Davidson said. There, activists worked to fend off a hydropower project that threatened to flood the valley.

“[Kundy] said he was tired of the government and powerful officials destroying nature with such impunity, and that he was embarrassed of future generations of Cambodians [blaming] people of his generation for not doing more to protect Cambodia’s natural resources,” Gonzalez-Davidson said.

Environmental activist Alex Gonzalez-Davidson is arrested in Phnom Penh in February 2015. David Seyha
Mother Nature co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson is arrested in Phnom Penh in February 2015. David Seyha

Saktheary said she supported him in his work because she could see how much it meant to him. “He worked voluntarily, not getting paid, but he loved his work,” she said. “I hope the court will render them justice and freedom. They did nothing wrong because they just took photos of the ships from a distance.”

If convicted, the pair could face up to two years for the “incitement” charge, and as much as an additional year for making unauthorised recordings of a person in a “private place”, a charge that also carries a fine of up to $500.

Independent legal expert Sok Sam Ouen questioned the validity of the charge, which he said did not hold up to scrutiny. Incitement, he said, is meant to be related to speech or an opinion.

“The photo itself is not incitement,” he said.

Furthermore, he was unaware of any law that prohibits taking photographs of an object, rather than a person. The photos, he added, were also taken from the sea, which “belongs to the public, not anyone”.

Un Sovantheany, the Koh Kong Provincial Court’s spokesperson, declined to clarify the justification for the charges yesterday, saying only that the court was merely “following the law”.

The pair’s arrest came on the heels of the publication of silica sand figures by Mother Nature showing that more than $30 million in sand exports registered by Taiwan customs appeared to have gone unaccounted for by Cambodian authorities.

Environmental activist Hun Vannak. Supplied/Mother Nature
Environmental activist Hun Vannak. Supplied/Mother Nature

This revelation followed a much bigger scandal in 2016 of regular sand exports to Singapore, imports of which the city-state had recorded at $752 million from 2007 to 2015. The Kingdom, meanwhile, recorded exports to the tune of a mere $5.5 million, raising concerns of massive irregularities.

Mong Reththy Group Co Ltd and Silica Service Cambodge Co Ltd, for which Yong Phat was previously listed as a director, are the only two companies licensed in the country to export silica sand.

Both Mong Reththy and Yong Phat are ruling Cambodian People’s Party senators close to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“It’s clear the trial of these two Mother Nature staff is motivated by an influential company – with close ties to the top of the ruling CPP – which doesn’t want any scrutiny of its sand dredging or other operations to plunder the natural resources of Koh Kong,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

Gonzalez-Davidson, meanwhile, said that sources within the provincial police and judiciary had told him they had expressed misgivings about the case – “internally of course” – but had been pressured to push it forward by Yong Phat.

Seng Nhak, the director of Yong Phat’s LYP Group, declined to respond to allegations that the company had been in involved in the case.

“By going forward with this ludicrous, evidence-less prosecution, the message being sent by the government and Koh Kong cronies is there is no law here except for what we say it is, and any human rights or environmental activist who angers us will be made to pay the price in a prison that many say is among the worst in Cambodia,” Robertson said.