Environmental Activism: A Dead-End Or A Way Forward?

By Yuki Nakamura

“The most beautiful bay in the world,” claims a poster from the Cambodian Department of Tourism in Sihanoukville. Yet, the reality of the beach shatters the image of your next beach getaway. The overwhelming amount of trash has been coupled with a repugnant smell from sewage water. 

Environmental degradation in Cambodia has been a manifestation of the alarming impacts of rapid unregulated development, particularly through Chinese investments in Cambodia. A once-tranquil coastal city, Sihanoukville is now a popular resort sport in Cambodia, where the Chinese have huge investments in hotels and casinos, and less-commonly known, the energy industry. 

The Cambodian government has viewed Chinese investment  favourably as a means to develop and rebuild the country. Cambodia forty years ago was a woefully different country, torn apart by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime of the Communist Party of Kampuchea. 

With the aim to create an ideal communist utopia, the Khmer Rouge regime targeted anyone considered an intellectual, and executed those who were educated, such as teachers, lawyers, and doctors [1]. The incident resulted in the death of the people who were to play a critical role for national development, as well as the deaths of close to two million people.

Portraits of prisoners at Tuol Sleng Genoside Museum.

As Cambodia continues to heal from this tragic chapter of its past, the government has emphasised the need for development, and turned to China as its partner. Indeed, the influx of billions of Chinese dollars has transformed the once-torn country. The growth of the economy has created jobs and increased land and property prices. 

However, Chinese investments have warranted more and more complaints from the locals. These investment projects have been criticized for their unscrupulous ways of doing business, by causing more harm than good for Cambodia. A Channel News Asia article highlights the ways in which Chinese investments have threatened the livelihoods of the local Cambodian communities. 

As the not-so-beautiful beach has shown, the rapid environmental degradation in Sihanoukville is deeply alarming, and many of these cases can be directly tied to the influx of Chinese investments and their business operations. A number of Chinese-owned hotel and casinos have recently been ordered to shut down by the Cambodian government since an environmental organization called Mother Nature released footage of raw sewage being directly poured into the sea. Although, currently, they have ignored such orders and refused to shut themselves down. 

In an interview with the Cambodian Director of Tourism, he shared that in Sihanoukville, there are issues with development due to poor infrastructure, resulting in issues such as sewage in sea water and garbage along beaches. 

“Garbage used to only be 120 tons a day,” he says, “But now there are more than 700 tons a day.” The increase in trash has accelerated since 2017, directly correlated with the influx of Chinese investments in the region.

Sihanoukville faces uncontrolled amounts of trash from rapid development. Image courtesy of Shen Meng Fei.

Ratha Thun, an activist from Mother Nature, shares in an interview that cities like Sihanoukville are not ready to accommodate with massive Chinese investments. 

Thun explains that the infrastructure does not exist to cope with increased consumption of resources and this, in turn, results in the unchecked production of waste. Thun claims that “the existing system cannot take massive influx of sewage, and as a result, waste is being sent to the sea without being treated. In certain areas, the wastewater is also spilling onto the roads, creating safety and health hazards.” 

The lack of regulations and law enforcement aggravates the issue as well. “The local authority is incompetent, and doesn’t respond to violations of regulations or enforce the law,” Thun adds. “People can just come in and set up stores without formal registration with the government. Chinese businesses technically can’t own land but they do. Even when the laws do exist, they are hardly enforced. People can’t just leave rubbish outside their homes, or on the streets. Businesses can’t just dump waste without treating them. But they do.”

According to Thun, the existing responses have mostly been on security measures,especially because of an increased public response to recent  incidents of increased crime rates and violence [2]. Unfortunately, in environmental issues, Thun claims that the public has no confidence in the government or local authorities to actually establish regulations at all, let alone enforce existing laws. 

Thun believes that the most effective way to engage the government and local authority is by generating a public response. “I want to send a message to the younger generations to be brave. The only way to make change is to trigger a public response,” he said. 

Thun is one of the rare environmental activists in Cambodia, and his position is constantly threatened. Historically, journalists, activists, and anyone who counter governmental agendas have faced persecution. 

“Those from older generations, especially those who have experienced the Khmer Rouge, ask me questions: Why do activists do what they do? How can they sustain themselves?” Thun shares. Older generations are  averse to the risks that are affiliated with advocating for issues that are against the government. 

The Khmer Rouge has left a large scar in the bodies and minds of Cambodians – Former officials and personnel from the Khmer Rouge Regime still remain in positions of power, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. As TIME reports, the prime minister’s power is far-reaching over  Cambodian society. As he yet again won another election, he has faced criticism for the severe measures of repression against the opposition party as well as press and even local citizens [3,4]. Compared to other countries in the world, Cambodia lacks freedom for its citizens. As Freedom House evaluates, Cambodia has a low freedom score across all spheres, including political rights and civil liberties. The lasting scars of the Khmer Rouge regime is still being felt to this very day. 

What does this mean for activists fighting for the environment? The reality is that the political environment in Cambodia has been, and continues to be, repressed. In late 2017, two activists from Mother Nature were arrested for photographing boats, and were found guilty of “incitement to commit a felony” in early 2018, the Phnom Penh Post reported [5]. 

Nonetheless, Thun continues his pursuit in activism, and shares that he wants to impact the younger generations. One small shift he has observed is that younger people in his communities have become more environmentally conscious and individually recycling in an effort to cultivate a community that cares more, bottom-up. This has been enough to keep Thun going. 

Thun’s activism has inspired many others in Cambodia to work in environmental preservation. However, individual changes do not address the full scope of the environmental problem that looms over the country. The repercussions of these investments are much deeper and pervasive than mere trash on the beaches or sewage water in the sea. It’s climate change. 

The World Health Organisation considers Cambodia to be “highly vulnerable to climate change-related flooding, drought and irregular weather patterns” [6]. The country has already seen this take effect; following heavy rain and severe floods in 2013, in 2015, Cambodia experienced its worst drought in half a century, affecting 2.5 million people across the country with water shortages [7,8]. 

Cambodian journalist Muy Hong shares that the agriculture industry is most at risk, and can harm the food security of the country overall. “Many Cambodian farmers have a traditional way of farming which heavily relies on the weather,” she says. “[Because of] changes in weather patterns, like when it doesn’t rain when it’s supposed to or when it rains when it’s not supposed to, farmers cannot start their plantation of rice”.  

While the boom of Chinese investments in hotels and casinos has received international attention, money being poured into hydroelectric dams and coal mining has been underreported. The use of coal to generate electricity and the establishment of hydroelectric projects are both extremely high emitters of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change [9].

Issues of climate change and its profoundly harmful effects only take place decades after emissions have been made. The extreme weather we observe today are not from emissions yesterday or last week; instead, they can be traced back decades to the rapid movement of industrialisation in the now developed economies. 

Nonetheless, increasing temperature and extreme weather destruct the very pillars of people’s livelihoods, such as income, food security, and health. Individual and communal action is crucial but insufficient. With increasing demand for both production and consumption as the economy grows, Cambodia has relied on unsustainable ways of business and energy sources at the detriment of its very society. 

“Be brave,” Thun calls out to the next generation. Tackling climate change requires long-term planning and robust collective action, activism, and political advocacy. Environmental activism like Thun’s triggers a public response and generates changes in the fundamental systems that guide our society, a force more necessary now than ever. 


[1] https://cla.umn.edu/chgs/holocaust-genocide-education/resource-guides/cambodia
[2] https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/3010138/chinese-gang-threatens-chaos-cambodian-province-rift
[3] http://time.com/5486460/pol-pot-cambodia-1979/
[4] http://time.com/4999905/cambodia-hun-sen-election-crackdown/
[5] https://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/mother-nature-activists-found-guilty
[6] http://www.wpro.who.int/cambodia/topics/climate_change/en/
[7] https://reliefweb.int/disaster/fl-2013-000131-khm

Yuki Nakamura is a senior at Yale-NUS College. You can contact her at ynakamura@u.yale-nus.edu.sg.