A group of 26 youths and nine Buddhist monks travelled to the Kbal Khla Knong forest community in Sandan commune of Sandan district in Kampong Thom province to promote an environmentalist and Buddhist message after hearing that the area was under threat. But they ran into resistance from local authorities there.
“During the second day when we went on a pilgrimage to preach to the community we were blocked by the authorities. They wore civilian clothes and no uniforms and they tried to disperse the group. After an hour of negotiations, they allowed only seven young people to enter there.
“This shows that law enforcement in the community are violating our rights and freedoms,” said Hok Kimleang, one of the youths from the group.
Kimleang added that the authorities should not restrict the participation of young people in community activism, including forest conservation.
One of the Buddhist monks with the group, Venerable Uon Kong, said that the situation in the forest in Kbal Khla community is bad because the forest is still being encroached upon by loggers.
Kong said they have many pictures of loggers cutting down trees and floating them away in the water.
He alleged that the local authorities did not try to catch the perpetrators of the deforestation, but instead stopped and prevented the youths from educating them about the forest and environmental issues.
“According to my observation, this was a case of the authorities threatening young people who participated in the activity. They forbade us from making a pilgrimage there and they called it a disorderly activity.
“But in fact, they caused disorder because they did not come here wearing their proper uniforms, they were dressed as a normal civilians. I think their actions were inappropriate,” Kong said.
Kong added that this demonstrates the restrictions of freedom taking place in a country that is supposed to be democratic.
In response, Sandan commune chief Ban Heng said that no local authorities had threatened the youth team, but that the authorities had simply banned them from marching from the study site to the district hall.
“So they did not threaten them, they just forbade them from marching because they had to ask permission from the authorities and their letter was only from the commune hall,” said Ban Heng.
He added that the youths’ permission was only for the commune hall and they went beyond what was announced, so the authorities only banned it because they had not yet asked for permission to march to the district hall.