Cambodia Youth Network: Respect Rights to Protect the Environment

Heng Kimhong is head of research and advocacy at the Cambodia Youth Network. Photo provided

Heng Kimhong, head of research and advocacy at the Cambodia Youth Network, called on the government to respect the rights of citizens so they can participate in environmental protection

Phoung Vantha: A lot of your work has been centered on environmental protection, why is this such a key issue for you and in which areas do you feel that activism is most urgently needed?

Heng Kimhong: The restrictions on civic space, threats to the local communities and social activists who want to be a part of environmental protects need to be allowed to patrol protected areas across the country—these are the main issues which lead to the illegal logging and corruption. Addressing corruption in Cambodia’s environment sector is most urgent, the hidden timber trade that exists in within development and economic land concessions along with the management of rivers and the sea, these are just some of the critical issues we see happening.

Cambodia’s natural resources could be used sustainably for future generations, but we need an open space for freedom expression—it needs everyone to come together to protect the environment, it’s not just for a select few.

Phoung Vantha: Cambodia has notoriously been a dangerous place for environmental activists, so given your level of involvement, do you ever feel worried that your work may be used against you or that you might not be safe?

Heng Kimhong: Of course, it is not safe for all activists or even me across the Kingdom. A lot of activists are in jail right now and some activists were charged by the court recently. Nobody supports me, including my family, my relatives and my friends, because it’s not safe for them to do so.  However, I know what to do and what I want to see in the future. I do not want someone to support me, but I know well that my work is contributing to my country.

I am not worried about my work, because that is my right following the constitution. If I do something based on the law and rights, then I am not guilty, but the people who abuse my rights are guilty.

Phoung Vantha: With COP26 recently in Glasgow, energy transition has proven itself crucial to the preservation of the environment—how optimistic are you about Cambodia’s energy sector going green?

Heng Kimhong: We know the government failed in its plan to protect at least 60 percent of forest across the Kingdom—Cambodia has only 46.86 percent of the forest in 2018, including rubber and palm oil plantations. We need to reopen the space for civil society, for activists and local communities so they can be involved in protecting the environment, our forests and protected areas, as well as stopping the abuse of citizens’ rights.

I am also asking the government to release all activists from jail and stop using the courts and authorities against them.

Phoung Vantha: We often hear that Cambodia is a small country and therefore not as responsible for emissions as larger countries, but do you feel like this is used as an excuse for other environmentally destructive policies and industries that thrive in Cambodia?

Heng Kimhong: The environment and natural resources belong to everyone in the world. We should not focus on small or big, but we should be its protector together. Nature is very easy to protect and it is not easy to repair. If we destroy it, it will return to destroy us.

Cambodia should have stronger policy and the authorities should do more to protect the environment.

Phoung Vantha: You work with a lot of young activists, to what extent do you feel the Cambodian youth are overcoming their fear of retribution to speak out against environmental destruction in Cambodia?

Heng Kimhong: Youths play a very important part in the protection of the environment and human rights, but since a lot of young activists have been arrested during the 2019 crackdown, youth involvement with activism and social work relevant freedom of expression, the environment and advocacy campaigns has been decreasing. There’s less involvement because they’re understandably concerned about their personal safety and their families’ safety.

Phoung Vantha: As you’re working with young Cambodians who are passionate about protecting the country’s natural resources and preventing climate catastrophe, how hopeful are you for the future of Cambodia’s response to environmental issues?

Heng Kimhong: I hope the government and Environment Ministry will reopen the space for young people to voice their concerns and fully support them and their communities in becoming part of the solution for environmental conservation, but to do this, we need to be able to exercise our right to freedom of expression. If we can work together to protect these rights and the environment, then we can save and repair Cambodia’s forests and rivers, but it has to start with the reopening of civic space—it must be done to respect the citizens’ rights.

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