Cambodian environmentalits under threat: three activists charged with conspiracy and insulting the king

Last June Cambodian Police forces arrested three young environmental activists for conspiracy and insulting the country’s King after having documented wastewater discharge from the Royal Palace into the Tonlé Sap River in Phnom Penh.

The charges

Young activists Ly Chandaravuth, Sun Ratha, and Yim Leanghy (respectively 22,26 and 32) of the environmental advocacy group Mother Nature have been arrested last June in the Cambodian province of Kandal after having documented the illegal discharge of wastewater from the Royal Palace in a River close to the King’s residence.[1] As a result, on 20 June the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged the three activists with conspiracy and insulting the Monarchy under articles 453 and 437 bis of the Cambodian Penal Code, crimes for which they risk between 5 and 10 years prison and fines up to 10 million riel (equal to 2,500 $).[2] What is more, Cambodian authorities also accused in absentia the Spanish founder of Mother Nature Alejandro González-Davidson, who was already expelled from the country in 2015 following open criticisms to the Government regarding a dam project in the area.[3] US Ambassador to Cambodia W.Patrick Murphy expressed its concern about the arrests, highlighting that “documenting pollution is a public service and not terrorism”. At the same time, Murphy urged authorities to be responsive to its citizens instead of silencing them.[4]

Environmental activists under threat

Adopted in 2018, the law introducing the offense of insulting the Monarchy is relatively recent. More precisely, during the last years the tendency to employ royal defamation laws to silence dissent in the country – which is particularly widespread in South-East Asian Monarchies and especially Thailand- extended also to Cambodia.[5] For that purpose, from the beginning of 2021 other Mother Nature activists have been sentenced to between 18 to 20 months prison for organizing a march to protest against the filling of a lake in the capital with sand for housing purposes.[6] Similarly, the list of activists engaged in environmental protection activities who are prosecuted and imprisoned by the Government appears to be particularly long: as a matter of facts, between March 2020 and the beginning of 2021 the Regime arrested a great number of Prey Lang Community Netweork  environmentalists for gathering evidence on illegal deforestation in Prey Lang forest.[7] Moreover, according to Human Rights Watch more than 70 political prisoners – including activists, environmentalists, journalists and opposition representatives- are waiting to be tried in the country, whose extremely politicized courts raise concerns on the possibility to guarantee fair trials.[8]

A vulnerable country

Cambodia is one of the most vulnerable regions to climate change, and especially to extreme flooding and long periods of drought. Such scenario appears to be particularly problematic in light of the economic configuration of the country, where 57.6% of the population is employed in agricultural activities, from which depends more that 30% of the country’s GDP.[9] Indeed, the impact of extreme and unpredictable weather events on both Cambodian economic structure and society is likely to push the country toward a devastating condition of debt and rising poverty. At present, the State is engaged into consistent and necessary climate change adaptation measures in the field of agricultural production, and over 53 automatic hydrological and meteorological stations have been set up within the Least Developed Countries Fund framework, the UNDP project aimed at supporting the most vulnerable provinces.[10] Notwithstanding, the precarious situation of Cambodian environmental activists provides evidence of the fact that the integration of environmental considerations into government priorities still appears to be remote.


[1] (accessed on 14.10.21).
[2] (accessed on 15.10.21).
[3] (accessed on 16.10.21).
[4] US Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy on Twitter commenting the arrest of young activists in Cambodia: (accessed on 16.10.21).
[5] Human Rights Watch, Cambodia: Free environmental activists, 22 June 2021. Available from: (accessed on 16.10.21).
[6] Supra, (2).
[7] (accessed on 16.10.21).
[8] Human Rights Watch, Political Prisoners Cambodia, 24 January 2020. Available from: (accessed on 16.10.21).
[9] SNV, Climate change in Cambodia. Available from: (accessed on 16.10.21).
[10] UNDP, Cambodia Adapts to Climate Change, 1 July 2019. Available from: (accessed on 16.10.21).

Foto copertina:Sun Ratha, a sinistra, e Yim Leanghy siedono all’interno di un’auto in una foto pubblicata sulla pagina Facebook di Madre Natura Cambogia il 20 giugno 2021. (Licadho)