Cambodia: Court bars activists from traveling to accept Alternative Nobel Prize

A young woman in a colorful helmet holds up a poster with a heart and speaks into a microphone “We love Koh Kong Island!”: a Mother Nature Cambodia campaign to protect the island from exploitation (© Mother Nature Cambodia)

Oct 4, 2023

The youth group Mother Nature Cambodia is among the winners of this year’s Alternative Nobel Prize. But the activists will not be allowed to accept the award in person: A court in Phnom Penh has banned them from traveling to Stockholm.

On September 28, activists Long Kunthea and Phoun Keoreaksmey and their colleague Thun Ratha received an invitation to Sweden to receive the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, in Stockholm on November 29. They are members of the youth group Mother Nature Cambodia, which for the past ten years has been dedicated to protecting nature and human rights in their home country.

Right Livelihood Executive Director Ole von Uexkull: “Mother Nature Cambodia is a group of fearless young activists fighting for environmental rights and democracy in the face of repression by the Cambodian regime. Through innovative and often humorous protests, their activism defends nature and livelihoods, while upholding communities’ voices against corrupt and damaging projects. Despite arrests, legal harassment and surveillance, they continue to fight relentlessly for Cambodians’ environmental and civic rights.”

The Cambodian government’s reaction was completely in character: A court in Phnom Penh barred Long Kunthea, Phoun Keoreaksmey and Thun Ratha from leaving the country to receive the award in person. The independent journalists’ network CamboJA reported that the court’s prosecutor stated that the trip was “not necessary” and that the activists were “not allowed to go abroad.”

The three young activists are among six Mother Nature Cambodia members, some of whom had been in prison for more than a year, who were released in November 2021 on bail and subject to strict conditions. If convicted, they could still face up to ten years in prison.

Appearing on stage in Stockholm would have made a statement

“This is a cruel thing for the judiciary in Cambodia to deny us as young people working on the protection of natural resources and the environment,” said Thun Ratha, one of the award winners. “The reason that the prosecutor gave, ‘not necessary,’ that’s a ridiculous reason because we were going to go abroad to get a global award that is not easy for any group or individual or country to get.”
Ratha believes the decision will give the international community the impression that Prime Minister Hun Manet is following in his father's footsteps, and will negatively impact Cambodia.

“We are dismayed that the Chairman of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court rejected our travel request to receive the Alternative Nobel Prize,” Phuon Keoreaksmey wrote to us. “We consider the decision to be politically motivated, and the court system in Cambodia is not independent. The decision has further damaged Cambodia’s reputation in the international community. It shows that the commitment to restoring human rights and democracy that Hun Manet boasted about to the international community (including the UN Summit) is meaningless. We hope the world takes note of this story!”

Appearing on stage to accept the award could have been a source of inspiration for young Cambodians, Thun Ratha said. It shows that people from a small country can achieve great things. The activists plan to have representatives accept the award in person on their behalf.

The Right Livelihood Foundation has called for a review of the court's decision.

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