Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen on Tuesday defended the presence in a protected forest zone of a controversial bodyguard unit accused of assaulting environmental activists monitoring activity in the area.
Writing on his Facebook page, Hun Sen said he had sent more than 1,000 members of his personal bodyguard force to help replant trees in 530 hectares of land that had already been cleared.
“The bodyguards were assigned there to speed the process of clearing the land so we can replant the trees,” the long-ruling prime minister said.
The appearance of his personal bodyguards in the protected Phnom Tamao Forest had sparked concerns that the land would be sold to private companies, Hun Sen acknowledged. “But I would like to reiterate that the Phnom Tamao area will be preserved for conservation.
“We will plant luxury trees there soon, and in order to prevent confusion and the spread of false information from people with bad intentions, the Ministry of Agriculture must declare this area as a conservation site,” Hun Sen added.
The Phnom Tamao forest, located roughly 25 miles south of Phnom Penh, is home to many rare and endangered species, and is the only forested eco-destination anywhere near the capital. It encompasses an area of more than 6,000 acres (2,450 hectares) and is home to the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Center, established in 1995.
In April, media reported that the government had agreed to sell more than 1,200 acres (500 hectares) of the protected forest to Leng Navatra, a real estate company, and two other businesses said to be close to Hun Sen’s family. Later reports suggested the entire area had been earmarked by the government for development, excluding the 1,000 acres (400 hectares) that contain the wildlife center.
On Tuesday, a group of environmental activists and reporters were forcibly detained by members of Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit as they tried to inspect an area of the forest that had earlier been cleared.
Hy Chhay, a reporter for the Cambodian VOD news service, said he was slapped in the face when he refused bodyguards’ demands to hand over his phone. He has now asked his employer to file a legal complaint to protect other reporters from future violence, he said.
“I want them to file a complaint to identify the suspect. I was given a press pass by the Ministry of Information, so the violence used against us was very wrong,” he said.
Media director of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) Ith Sothouet meanwhile said he is in discussions with Hy Chhay and his lawyer to explore additional legal options to protect journalists threatened with violence while working.
Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said the country’s armed forces must perform their duties according to law and guided by strict codes of ethics. He called for swift action to be taken against the suspect accused in Hy Chhay’s assault.
“This will do more to give the public confidence,” he added.
Critics have long accused Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit of using violence to support the political interests of the long-serving prime minister, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985.
In November 2016, Hun Sen promoted two members of the elite unit despite their convictions for brutally beating a pair of opposition lawmakers near Phnom Penh’s National Assembly the year before.
Sol Vanny and Mao Hoeun became full colonels barely two weeks after they were freed from prison after serving only one year of a four-year sentence.
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