Environmental activists in Cambodia fear for their privacy and freedom of expression as the country introduces a new China-style internet firewall
By Matt Blomberg
PHNOM PENH, April 6 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Disguised as a fisherman, Bun Ly chugs up and down the Mekong River in a longtail boat, counting giant barges full of sand dredged from the bed of the struggling waterway as part of his new job with outlawed activist group Mother Nature Cambodia.
It's a far cry from the luxury hotels and buffet lunches of his former life in the development sector, which Ly - whose name has been changed to protect his identity - left behind after the arrest in September of a young woman he had mentored.
"I still blame myself," said Ly, 32, who has trained hundreds of young intellectuals in critical thinking, including Long Kunthea, a 22-year-old chemistry student facing trial on incitement charges related to her work with Mother Nature.
In recent years, environmentalists and human rights defenders in Cambodia have been caught up in a spate of arrests that rights group Amnesty International has called a "relentless assault" on activism.
Now Ly and his fellow activists face a new challenge with the introduction of a China-style internet firewall that critics say threatens the rights to privacy and freedom of expression.
"One hundred percent, (the government) can disrupt and track us," Ly said of the National Internet Gateway, which would allow all online traffic to be monitored and controlled.
A decree announced in February requires internet service providers to reroute their services through the gateway before February 2022.
"Our work depends on the internet ... if they disrupt, we may have many challenges - but we will find a way to continue our work," said Ly from his parents' hometown, where they farm sapodilla about two hours' drive from the capital, Phnom Penh.
Amid a "sharp increase" of arrests related to online activity, more than 60 rights groups said the gateway could be "wielded against human rights activists" and called for it to be scrapped.
The government has said the gateway was necessary to bring order to the internet in Cambodia and that it would be less intrusive than regulations in the United States and Britain.
Human rights groups decried the arrests of Kunthea and two other young Mother Nature activists as they linked flash flooding in the city to lakes being filled in for development.
Campaigners again called for an end to the targeting of activists in February, after Ouch Leng, a 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, and four others were detained while investigating deforestation in the Prey Lang forest.
But for Mother Nature, with its confrontational style and on-the-ground reporting, clashes with authorities are inevitable.
Since its inception in 2013, eight members have been sent to prison over their work.
Its Spanish co-founder was expelled from Cambodia in 2015 after campaigning successfully against a hydropower dam project that would have destroyed protected forest.
The group deregistered in 2017 to avoid being subject to a widely criticised law designed to regulate nonprofits and was then branded an "outlaw group" by Cambodian officials.
Mother Nature grew its online following with on-the-scene video clips exposing environmental crimes, often making links to official corruption or mismanagement.
"We produce videos that ensure sustainable development, protect the environment and we also work on corruption, seeking accountability and transparency," Ly said.
But while racking up millions of views, the videos also brought unwanted attention for the activists appearing in them.
After two members were jailed in 2017 during a campaign against the theft and black market sale of hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of sand, Mother Nature started using puppets in its videos to protect the identities of its activists
In the ensuing years, a new wave of activists have been slowly returning to front of camera.
But following the most recent arrests, Ly presents a new campaign video - his first, about gold bullion being laundered through Cambodia - wearing an Iron Man mask.
Ly has told almost nobody outside Mother Nature about his activism - his family thinks he still works in development.
His wife, who runs their roadside phone shop, has noticed that his hours and income have changed, but doesn't ask many questions, he said.
"I earn much less, which is a burden for her, but she does not understand the nature of my work."
Since the September arrests, which included a raid on a property where the group produced its videos, members have scattered and are careful not to stay in one place for long, he said.
He has been spending part of his time working from an abandoned house. "It's not very clean, but it is safe, for now," he said.
'GO TO PRISON, GO ABROAD OR DIE'
Amid rising security threats - including having its Facebook page hacked and members seemingly being tracked in person and online - the group also has a heightened fear of infiltrators.
"If we want to recruit new members, we need to think about if they can be trusted or not," said Ly.
And while there is a vast network of educated, energetic young people who are sympathetic to the cause, the fear of arrest prevents most from committing to it, he added.
"They might be activists as well, but when they hear Mother Nature Cambodia, they feel afraid."
For strategic reasons, Mother Nature does not reveal the extent of its membership.
Members use aliases, burner phones, encrypted communications and have installed an application that allows devices to be wiped clean remotely, in case of more arrests.
Ly grinned when asked what his parents and wife would think of the dangers of his work and referred to the teachings of Kem Ley, a political commentator and government critic who was shot dead in a gas station shop in 2016.
"I am a student of Kem Ley. My goal is to spread peace and education in society," he said.
Asked how long he thought he could avoid detection by authorities, his confident grin was replaced by a trepid one.
"They already know," he said. "That's why, when we do this work, we prepare ourselves with three visas: go to prison, go abroad or die."
Of the three, prison would be the best outcome, he said, because "I already have friends in there."
(Reporting by Matt Blomberg. Editing by Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)