STUNG TRENG (Khmer Times) – A group of 50 students from Phnom Penh were banned by local provincial authorities Wednesday from visiting a local forest community in Prey Lang forest.
It is believed that officials barred the group from the forest in Stung Treng province to hide signs of illegal logging. Citizens and NGOs have complained about the growing numbers of trees felled, charging that local authorities do not take action.
The university students had traveled six hours and 400 kilometers north from the capital to tour a section of the forest near the Laos border. They intended to learn about conservation and local communities, according to one student, Seat Lykheang.
“We also wanted to learn about the life culture of the Kuy ethnic group, one of the major ethnic groups in the northern part of the country,” Mr. Lykheang told Khmer Times.
The Prey Lang forest in northern Cambodia is one of Southeast Asia’s last remaining lowland evergreen forests. It covers an estimated 3,600 square kilometers and houses around 200,000 members of ethnic minorities.
Thong Saran, the district governor of Thala Barivat, charged Wednesday that the trip was probably not a real student tour.
“We welcome study tours for students in the province at any time,” Mr. Saran said. “But those on this trip did not inform us ahead of the visit. So we did not allow them to visit certain places.”
One trip organizer said Mr. Saran asked them to visit other areas in the province.
“We were scheduled to visit some places in this commune for four days and learn about the living situation and careers of local people, especially the forest communities,” said So Sukunthida.
Political analyst Kem Ley, who was leading another group of students at the same time, was also barred from visiting Prey Lang. According to Mr. Ley, study tours aim to encourage city students to learn about the forest and to gain appreciation for the area in order to preserve it.
“It is a social campaign among students, monks and the public to remain aware about Prey Lang,” Mr. Ley said.
He said his study tour to Prey Lang was one of four trips available to students. The others are to Kratie, Kampong Thom and Preah Vihear provinces.
A Thala Barivat district street vendor, who asked not to be named, told Khmer Times that he had seen numerous trucks loaded with wood traveling along the road to Prey Lang at night.