Praise by Prime Minister Hun Sen for social media celebrity Thy Sovantha’s “forest protection” work in Koh Kong’s Areng Valley yesterday irked long-time environmental activists, particularly in light of Friday’s conviction of three members of NGO Mother Nature for their activism in the province.
Speaking at an event on Friday in Kampong Speu province to celebrate National Fish Day, the premier praised Sovantha as well as prominent singer Meas Soksorphea for serving as role models.
“Thy Sovantha, known as a Facebook user, used to lead groups to the Areng area, [as part of] a protection movement, and I would encourage her to continue, because there is nothing wrong with protecting the forest . . . all the people love the forest and [Sovantha] also hates the timber traders and loggers as well.”
However, coming after the conviction of Mother Nature activists San Mala, Try Sovikea and Sim Somnang for boarding sand-dredging vessels last year in an attempt to halt the practice in the area, the comments were quickly met with cynicism.
Thun Rotha, a member of Mother Nature, which led the campaign against Sino Hydro’s proposed hydropower dam in Areng, accused Sovantha of piggybacking on the issue to raise her profile.
“We see that there are two pictures; it disappoints us deeply. There’s the real protection work [of Mother Nature] and then there’s the work [of Thy Sovantha], who just gains advantages from the area,” Rotha said.
Sovantha, who was unreachable yesterday, rose to prominence as an anti-government campaigner aligned with the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
However, after a public falling out, the 20-year-old has turned her guns on the opposition, filing a defamation case against CNRP acting president Kem Sokha over disparaging comments allegedly made about her in secretly recorded tapes said to feature the opposition leader talking to mistresses.
Yesterday, she took to Facebook to detail her work in Areng, stating she had led 1,250 tourists to the area over eight visits and helped to build infrastructure including toilets, wells, classrooms and a staircase.
“I will put more effort in to cooperate with environmental activists, civil society organisations, and the government to protect the forest,” she wrote.
But dissident monk But Buntenh, director of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, suggested it was Sovantha’s political manoeuvering that had endeared her to the premier, noting the numerous environmental groups already working in the field. “But Hun Sen does not dare praise them since those organisations do not protect his interests,” he said.
Mala, Sovikea and Somnang were convicted by the Koh Kong Provincial Court on Friday for an alleged threat to destroy dredging equipment, but were released with a suspended sentence after spending more than 10 months in pre-trial detention. Speaking yesterday, Somnang decried the verdict as unfair, citing a lack of evidence, but said he would continue his activism.
Asked about Sovantha’s work, he said he welcomed all help to protect the environment, saying people could make up their own mind about activists’ sincerity.