TIME Thailand

A British Labor Activist’s Trial in Thailand Puts Free Speech in the Spotlight

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British migrant rights' activist Andy Hall answers reporters' questions as he arrives for a hearing at a court in Bangkok on Sept. 2, 2014. Christophe Archambault—AFP/Getty Images

For making allegations of brutal conditions in the Thai pineapple industry, Andy Hall faces prison and a fine of up to $10 million

A British labor activist began his fight against defamation charges in a Bangkok court Tuesday, after a report he co-authored made serious allegations regarding abuses in Thailand’s food production industry.

Andy Hall, 33, faces both civil and criminal lawsuits after he alleged that practices including forced labor, the exploitation of children, the paying of unfair wages and up to 10 hours forced overtime daily were rife at factories belonging to Thai fruit firm Natural Fruit.

Defamation is a criminal offense in Thailand and Hall could receive up to a year in prison if convicted, as well as be liable for up to $10 million damages through civil action. Separate charges under Thailand’s much-criticized Computer Crimes Act could carry an additional seven years in jail.

“My work has always been in the public interest and I’ve fought for a long time for migrant workers,” he told TIME before his court appearance, adding that he is “incredibly confident” of acquittal. “I think it would be very difficult for this company to prove that I have any bad intentions towards them.”

Thailand is the world’s largest producer of pineapples and Natural Fruit the country’s largest producer of canned pineapples. The industry heavily relies upon migrant labor from impoverished neighbors such as Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

Natural Fruit is a big supplier to the European beverages market, and leading food companies have leaped to Hall’s defense, urging the company to drop its legal action, even threatening a boycott if their demands are not met. A petition with 300,000 signatures has also been filed.

“Migrant workers are silent and cannot speak out — often if they do they are killed,” adds Hall. “If I can’t speak out then who will combat trafficking and fight exploitation? Nobody would dare.”

Hall’s investigations were documented in the 2013 report, Cheap Has a High Price. It was only published in Finnish, by the advocacy group Finnwatch, but the defamation charges arose from a subsequent interview Hall gave to Al-Jazeera in Rangoon.

Speaking to the Democratic Voice of Burma in May, Natural Fruit’s lawyer Somsak Torugsa said “under Thai law, any charge of defamation that is made against Thai citizens or Thai companies can be tried in a Thai court of law.”

Natural Fruit’s owner, Virat Piyapornpaiboon, has vehemently denied the allegations several times and said he was saddened by them. “The report caused damage to me and my company. Any accusations were not true,” he told AFP.

Should Hall be convicted, Benjamin Zawacki, a human rights visiting fellow at Harvard Law School, fears a “chilling effect” for similarly outspoken activists who take on big business.

Criminal defamation, he says, “is a ready-made tool for use against critical, unpopular, oppositional speech — the very thing human rights defenders are known for and states are known not to welcome.”

Ominously, several other criminal defamation cases are currently targeting those who expose corruption and criminality in Thailand. On May 20, the Thai Army lodged a similar case against a respected Thai human rights activist for “damaging the reputation” of soldiers in the nation’s restive south, after she requested an investigation into an allegation of physical assault.

On Monday, two people were arrested for distributing leaflets demanding murder charges are reinstated against former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. They too have since been charged with criminal defamation. In addition, two editors of the Phuketwan newspaper are possibly facing seven years’ imprisonment for printing an extract from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Reuters report that alleged complicity by the Thai Navy in the trafficking of Rohingya Muslims. Reuters faces no such charges.

“They choose their targets,” says Hall, who has also received messages of support and concern from U.N. representatives, the E.U. and various human rights groups. “It’s a bad law and it’s a bad system and it’s really being used to silence those doing benefit to society.”

Zawacki notes that Thailand’s military government has “dropped, expedited or otherwise acted on many other controversial cases,” but the cases against both Hall and Phuketwan are moving forward. This, he says, “only emphasizes this point: political dissent will not be tolerated.”

TIME Thailand

Thousands of Refugee Children Are Suffering in Thai Detention

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Children, part of a group of asylum seekers, sit in a truck as Thai immigration officials escort them to a court in Songkhla, southern Thailand, on March 15, 2014 Tuwaedaniya Meringing—AFP/Getty Images

A prominent watchdog accuses Bangkok of serious rights failings

Significant trauma is being experienced by thousands of refugee children being held in squalid detention centers in Thailand, claims a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The 67-page document, Two Years With No Moon: Immigration Detention of Children in Thailand, was published Tuesday and accuses Thailand of violating children’s rights, impairing their health and imperiling their development.

“Migrant children detained in Thailand are suffering needlessly in filthy, overcrowded cells without adequate nutrition, education or exercise space,” says report author Alice Farmer, children’s-rights researcher at the New York City–based advocacy group. “Detention lockup is no place for migrant children.”

Because there is a lack of legal and other mechanisms by which they can be released, many of the children are detained indefinitely, sometimes for years.

There are approximately 375,000 migrant children in Thailand, say experts, the largest number from Burma, officially known as Myanmar, where thousands have fled the world’s longest running civil war as well as recent pogroms against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Other young refugees hail from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Syria and elsewhere.

Unfortunately for them, Thailand has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have functioning asylum procedures. If caught, undocumented aliens run the risk of being put in immigration detention, often in harsh conditions.

HRW researchers say that they found children were being crammed into cells so crowded that they had to sleep sitting up, and that the children were being housed with unrelated adults, risking sexual and physical abuse.

“I interviewed children who were terrified of some of the people they met in detention,” Farmer tells TIME. She claimed that that the conditions violated “the U.N. minimum standards for detention centers.”

“The worst part was that you were trapped and stuck,” says Cindy Y., a refugee detained between the ages of 9 and 12, told HRW. “I would look outside and see people walking around the neighborhood, and I would hope that would be me.” She was one of 41 children interviewed for the HRW report.

Thailand has denied that it is failing refugee children in a seven-page written response to the HRW. “Detention of some small number of migrant children in Thailand is not a result of the government’s policies but rather the preference of their migrant parents themselves (family unity) and the logistical difficulties,” it said.

“The Thai government is trying its best to address and accommodate the needs of migrant children, bearing in mind the humanitarian consideration and fundamental human rights. In addition, it is worth to mention [sic] the Thai officers who work tirelessly amidst all constraints to help sheltering these migrants. Their work deserves understanding as well as recognition.”

The only choice for the refugees is to return to their country of origin — a prospect many cannot countenance for fear of violence, persecution, torture or death — or else wait in the slim hope that they will be accepted for resettlement in a third country. It is a soul-destroying limbo.

“These kids have nowhere to go,” says Farmer, “and ultimately stay in detention indefinitely with no understanding of what will happen to them down the line. It puts a very big burden on the shoulders of some very small people.”

TIME Cambodia

Aging Khmer Rouge Leaders Found Guilty of Crimes Against Humanity

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Cambodian and international journalists watch a live video feed showing former Khmer Rouge leader "Brother No. 2" Nuon Chea, left, and former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan in the courtroom during their trial at the ECCC in Phnom Penh on Aug. 7, 2014. Tang Chhin Sothy—AFP/Getty Images

But victims feel that justice has not been served

More than three decades after Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge wiped out a quarter of the country’s population, two key architects of the regime have been found guilty of crimes against humanity by a U.N.-backed court.

“Brother No. 2” Nuon Chea, 88, was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the deaths of an estimated 1.7 million of his compatriots. His 83-year-old co-defendant, Khieu Samphan, the regime’s former head of state, also received a life sentence.

Both were guilty of “extermination encompassing murder, political persecution and other inhumane acts comprising forced transfer, enforced disappearances and attacks against human dignity,” chief judge Nil Nonn told the hearing.

There was no discernible reaction from either defendant, both of whom are extremely frail and have vehemently denied any wrongdoing.

“The sentences that were imposed reflect the gravity of the crimes of which the accused were convicted,” international co-prosecutor Nicholas Koumjian said at a press conference after the verdict.

From seizing power in 1975, until its routing by the invading Vietnamese in 1979, the Khmer Rouge inflicted one of the worst genocides of the 20th century. Merely being literate or wearing eyeglasses marked one out as counterrevolutionary intellectual, to be subject to torture and gruesome death.

Those not killed were likely to perish from overwork, starvation, disease and neglect. All urban centers were emptied and the population forced to toil in the fields in pursuit of leader Pol Pot’s Year Zero agrarian utopia. These forced evacuations formed a major aspect of the prosecution case.

The Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), hybrid benches applying elements of both Cambodian and international law, were launched in 2006 to mete out justice. But allegations of corruption and absolutions given to senior Khmer Rouge figures now enjoying positions of authority have dogged progress.

Until Thursday’s verdict, only one conviction — that of Kaing Guek Eav, better known by his nom de guerre Comrade Duch, the former chief of the notorious S-21 prison in Phnom Penh — had been achieved, at a cost of some $200 million.

Moreover, it is unlikely that any more Khmer Rouge figures will stand trial. Pol Pot himself died in a jungle hideout while on the run in 1998, while the identities of five other possible defendants have not been officially released (even if they have been widely circulated). There is also considerable reluctance within the government of Cambodia’s strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, himself a former Khmer Rouge battalion commander, to pursue prosecutions.

Khieu Samphan and Nuon Chea, however, must both now prepare for a second trial, this time on the specific charge of genocide, which is due to start later this year. Khieu Samphan has admitted that mass killings took place but denies any responsibility, while Nuon Chea blames the invading Vietnamese forces for killing his countrymen.

Nuon Chea’s international defense lawyer, Victor Koppe, described his client as in “very good spirits” on the morning before Thursday’s verdict, and eager to contest the new charges. “He’s very much looking forward to the second trial because, from our perspective, that is much more interesting, as we’ll be able to speak about the role of Vietnam in that period and many other issues,” Koppe said by phone.

For victims, though, there is a sense of justice being lost. Dara Duong was 4 years old when the Khmer Rouge seized power and murdered his father, grandparents, uncle and aunt.

“We wonder why they took so long” he says, about the efforts to hold the perpetrators to account. “We are not satisfied with this process.”

TIME Cambodia

In Cambodia, Dozens of Security Guards Are Hurt in an Opposition Crackdown

Police officers scuffle with protesters during clashes at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh
Police officers scuffle with protesters during clashes at Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh July 15, 2014. Pring Samrang—Reuters

Three opposition MPs-elect were also arrested in the melee in Phnom Penh's Freedom Park

Bloody clashes broke out in central Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Tuesday morning as security personnel met with stern resistance while attempting to break up an antigovernment demonstration. Three opposition MPs-elect were arrested in the ensuing melee.

Protesters sporting banners and T-shirts reading “Free the Freedom Park” were confronted by dozens of baton-wielding security guards, but officers were soon overwhelmed and many were savagely beaten with improvised weapons.

At least eight district security guards were severely injured, reports the Phnom Penh Post, including one who had a large rock smashed on his skull while lying prone. Smoke bombs were then deployed to disperse the crowd.

Deputy municipal governor Khuong Sreng told the Cambodia Daily that a total of 37 security guards were hurt. “Two others are in emergency care with critical injuries,” he said.

Cambodia has been wracked by political tensions since elections a year ago that returned strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen but were widely condemned as fraudulent.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party has now clung onto power for more than 29 years. Officially, it won 68 out of 123 legislative seats in last July’s elections. However, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) maintains it was cheated out of eight seats that would have swung the balance of power.

CNRP MPs-elect have refused to take their seats in protest and have been spearheading ongoing demonstrations, including the one at Freedom Park, where three of them — Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum and Men Sothavarin — were detained

“So far, police have arrested three CNRP lawmakers,” says Khuong Sreng. “Whenever there’s violence, the leaders of demonstration must be immediately arrested for questioning and investigation.”

A ban against public protests was enacted in Phnom Penh after violent clashes involving striking garment workers — many of whom backed the CNRP — broke out in January with the loss of at least six lives. Freedom Park was closed and surrounded by razor wire to deter demonstrators.

“There was every indication from the government that they would not tolerate any attempt to protest, particularly at the Freedom Park,” Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, tells TIME. “But it’s within the rights of the people to protest and push the boundaries.”

CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith told the Cambodia Daily that the organization was “sorry for the violent clash today.” However, he maintained that “it was the security guards who started the violence and attacked the protesters as they often have done before.”

TIME Thailand

A Young Thai Activist Has Vanished, and the Junta Isn’t Saying Anything

Police officers stand guard at a shopping mall in Bangkok
Police officers stand guard at a shopping mall in Bangkok on June 8, 2014 Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters

Prominent Red Shirt activist Kritsuda Khunasen has not been heard from since her arrest on May 28

Fears are growing for a 27-year-old female Thai political activist detained by soldiers late last month.

Kritsuda Khunasen was seized on May 28 in Chonburi province, and her arrest was documented on TV. However, nothing has been heard of her since.

Instead of disclosing her whereabouts, or providing evidence of her release, the junta on Tuesday included her name on a list of people ordered to report to them by June 18 — creating the impression that she had not already been detained.

“Summoning someone already in custody raises concerns that the authorities may be preparing to cover up a disappearance and that something may have happened to Kritsuda,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a statement released by the New York City–based advocacy group.

Since her arrest, neither Kritsuda’s family nor Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission have been able to locate her, the group says.

“The Thai military should put to rest fears that Kritsuda has been forcibly disappeared by immediately disclosing her location and allowing access to a doctor and a lawyer,” stated Adams. “Concerned governments should demand that Thailand’s military authorities immediately explain what has happened to her and ensure her safety.”

Kritsuda was a prominent member of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) activist group, colloquially known as the Red Shirts, which backed the government of ousted Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and vehemently opposed military intervention in the nation’s protracted political crisis.

“I still do not have any information,” says Dr. Weng Tojirakarn, a UDD leader who was recently released by the military, subject to stringent constraints. “I’m very concerned that she is missing as everybody would like to see basic human rights maintained.”

Since the May 22 coup, an estimated 500 politicians, activists, journalists and academics have been arbitrarily detained, although no exhaustive figures have been released. HRW alleges that a significant number of secret military detentions have also taken place.

Those critical of the coup — the 12th successful putsch since the end of absolute monarchical rule in 1932 — have been harassed at home and work, threatened with imprisonment or detained. Thais working abroad have been pressured to rein in their disapproval.

The junta evidently feels confident enough to order the nationwide curfew to be lifted on Friday. Coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha has since promised “a government will be set up by August, or at the very latest September,” with elections some time in the next 15 months.

Nevertheless, critics and activists feel cowed and extremely wary. One grassroots Red Shirt activist in northern Thailand, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest, tells TIME that three of her cohorts were ordered to report to military authorities in the capital on Wednesday, despite halting all political work.

“One of them has been detained by soldiers in Chiang Mai two times [since the coup], and the other two have been detained once before,” she says, “but now they all have to go to Bangkok.”

Meanwhile, rumors of a crackdown on migrant labor — considered the backbone of Southeast Asia’s second largest economy — have prompted some 188,000 Cambodians to flee back home amid fears of arrest, deportation and being shot if they attempt to evade the authorities.

Eight people have so far been killed in traffic accidents related to the exodus. “I think that the current leaders of [the] Thai junta must be held accountable for what has happened,” said Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng.

TIME Thailand

More Than 120,000 Cambodian Migrants Have Fled the Thai Junta

Cambodian migrant workers carry belongings as they walk to cross border at Aranyaprathet in Sa Kaew
Cambodian migrant workers carry their belongings as they walk to cross the border at Aranyaprathet, Thailand, on June 15, 2014 Athit Perawongmetha—Reuters

Rights groups say the unprecedented exodus shows deep fear of a Thai military crackdown

An exodus of more than 120,000 Cambodians working in Thailand has raised fears of a migrant-labor crackdown in the wake of the Southeast Asian nation’s military coup.

Since the Thai army seized power on May 22, activists, academics and politician have been rounded up, strict censorship imposed and martial law enacted. The ruling junta has also adopted an increasingly nationalistic tone, vowing to deport illegal migrants.

“We see illegal workers as a threat because there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems,” Thai army spokesman Sirichan Ngathong said on Wednesday. (Later, though, another junta spokesperson insisted no crackdown had been ordered.)

Rumors swirl of Cambodian workers shot and killed by the Thai security forces, although Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, says he has not been able to independently verify such claims. “There must be some serious abuses actually happening, and I wouldn’t be surprised given the nationalist card being played by the junta,” he says.

Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of Cambodia’s northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey by the main border crossing, told AFP, “They’re returning en masse, like a dam collapsing,” estimating the number at around 122,000 people.

“They’ve never come en masse like this before in our history,” he added. “They said they are scared of being arrested or shot if they run when Thai authorities check their houses.”

Thailand officially hosts around 2 million migrant workers, although the true figure could be as much as 5 million, according to Pimonwan Mahujchariyawong, an economist at the Kasikorn Research Center. Most are undocumented and toil in woefully paid industries such as construction, textiles or seafood processing.

Andy Hall, a Thailand-based migrant-labor expert formerly with Bangkok’s Mahidol University, says the numbers flooding home show “something exceptional is going on.”

Migrant workers are used to being rounded up and extorted on a regular basis, says Hall, and accept such aggravations with resigned forbearance. That means whatever fears are causing them to flee now must be serious indeed.

“These workers would have spent a lot of their earnings coming to Thailand to earn money for their families,” he says. “Unless they had been there for a long time and made a lot of money, to go back would be a huge risk for them financially.”

The deluge of returnees will likely exacerbate already strained relations between the two neighbors, which frequently spar over disputed territory and Cambodia’s harboring of figures considered “undesirables” by the Thai establishment.

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was briefly made “adviser on economics” to Cambodia while wanted on graft charges in his homeland, and many of his most ardent Red Shirt supporters have found sanctuary in Phnom Penh and its surrounds. “It is an open secret that [Cambodian Prime Minister] Hun Sen is really close to the Red Shirts,” says Ou Virak.

Another factor, says Hall, is that migrant workers are often paid or ordered to attend political rallies by their employers, and so frequently come under fire by rival factions. Antigovernment rabble-rouser Suthep Thaugsuban had previously attributed attacks on his demonstration camps to Cambodian hired guns. “And it wasn’t just the Cambodians,” says Hall. “There were lots of pictures of migrants in [Burmese] longyis attending rallies.”

Establishing whether the returning migrants are undocumented workers fearing arrest, or individuals with valid papers fearing for their lives, will be pivotal to gauging the gravity of the exodus, says Ou Virak.

The economies of both countries are likely to suffer, with Thai industries reliant on cheap foreign labor and Cambodian families benefiting on remittances from migrant relatives. However, “Thailand relies heavily on [Burmese] labor much more than from Cambodia, and so the impact of this kind of return of labor might not affect the overall economic system,” says Pimonwan.

Thailand’s economy is teetering on the brink of recession, having contracted 2.1% quarter on quarter in the first three months of this year. But economic stimulus plans launched by the military — including the commencement of payments to rice farmers, who are owed $2.8 billion — and a wave of new infrastructure projects should soon bear fruit, says Pimonwan, notwithstanding the depleted migrant workforce. “We think their economic measures will support a recovery in the second half of the year,” she adds.

TIME Cambodia

Trafficking Activist Somaly Mam Is Accused of Faking Her Life Story

Cambodian activist Somaly Mam (R) accepts a "Woman of the Year" award with a child she rescued from sexual slavery, during the 2006 Glamour Magazine "Women of the Year" Honors award show in New York City October 30, 2006. Lucas Jackson—Reuters

Following a Newsweek article, and a legal probe that found several alleged inconsistencies in her oft-cited biography, Mam has quit the NGO she helped found

Somaly Mam, the world-renowned campaigner against sex trafficking, and a TIME 100 alumni from 2009, resigned Wednesday from the organization she started, after a probe found apparent inconsistencies in the shocking personal history she has frequently cited when raising funds for her cause.

The Somaly Mam Foundation’s executive director Gina Reiss-Wilchins published a statement on the organization’s website, expressing “heartfelt disappointment” over Mam’s decision, which came after a two-month investigation by a legal firm the foundation hired to investigate the allegations of falsification.

The firm looked at various claims made by Mam, including her being sold into sexual slavery at a young age.

Mam’s resignation comes a week after a May 21 Newsweek article, which questioned several of the central assertions of her autobiography, The Road of Lost Innocence, such as her being an orphan and having been abducted.

“We remain grateful to Somaly’s work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls,” stated Reiss-Wilchins. “We look forward to moving past these events and focusing all of our energies on this vital work.”

TIME Laos

Laos Is Going to Build a Dam That Will Kill Off the Last Irrawaddy Dolphins

An Irrawaddy dolphin, also known as the Mekong dolphin, swims in the river at the Kampi village in Kratie province, 230 km (143 miles) northeast of Cambodia Chor Sokunthea / Reuters

The species could be wiped out from the Mekong River by a new hydropower project, which also threatens to decimate fishing stocks

The majestic Mekong River stretches some 4,350 km from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea, carving through China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Around 60 million people rely on Southeast Asia’s longest waterway for survival, but plans to build a hydropower station in southern Laos are threatening their livelihoods, and may also spell catastrophe for one of the world’s most mysterious creatures — the Irrawaddy Dolphin.

Only around 85 Irrawaddy dolphins — which are closely related to the killer whale and have a distinctive rounded snout — still exist in the Mekong, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). They occupy a 190-km stretch near where the Lao government is planning to build the 260-megawatt Don Sahong dam.

“Plans to construct the Don Sahong dam in a channel immediately upstream from these dolphins will likely hasten their disappearance from the Mekong,” said WWF-Cambodia’s country director Chhith Sam Ath late February.

According to a WWF paper, construction will entail excavating millions of tons of rock using explosives, which will create strong sound waves that can kill dolphins. Increased boat traffic, polluted water and habitat degradation represent other major risks to the dolphins, which are already vulnerable to low calf survival and accidental entanglement in rubbish or fishing equipment.

Known as the 4,000 Islands, this stunning region also boasts the Khone Phapheng Waterfall, the largest cascades in Asia — a popular tourist draw along with the dolphins themselves. It’s here that the Mekong splits into multiple channels, and it is the largest of these, the Hou Sahong, which will be harnessed for the dam.

The Mekong is second only to the Amazon for biodiversity, being home to more than 1,200 different fish species. Some 80% to 90% of these use the Hou Sahong route to travel upstream; hindering their progress could decimate the world’s largest inland fishery.

“We view that impacts on fisheries will be significant,” said Le Duc Trung, Head of Vietnam delegation to the Mekong River Commision (MRC) in January. “It is not possible to [substitute] modified channels for upstream fish migration [for] the existing Hou Sahong.”

Harnessing hydropower potential is a major policy plinth for Laos’ communist government, which boasts ambitious plans for up to 60 dams and intends to turn the landlocked nation into the “battery of Southeast Asia,” according to Industry and Commerce Minister Nam Viyaketh. “We can sell our energy to our neighbors,” he said during a 2010 interview. “Laos can be rich.”

But critics insist the comparatively measly 260 megawatts proffered from Don Sahong does not justify the huge risks involved. (China’s Three Gorges Dam produced 70 times that amount in 2010.) “The benefits can be considered pretty small when you compare with the impact that this dam might have,” Pianporn Deetes, a local coordinator for the International Rivers NGO, tells TIME.

The WWF advocates exploring alternatives such as the Thako Project, which, Pianporn says, “could generate approximately the same amount of electricity as but at lower cost and with far less impacts as it does not involve building a barrier across any of the channels of the Mekong mainstream.”

The Mekong River Commission meets in Hanoi early next month and has agreed to take discussions to ministerial level. But even if objections are raised to the project, as is likely, there is no guarantee it will be halted. A larger dam in northern Laos, the Xayaburi, is already well under construction despite not receiving commission approval.

Indeed, “according to our field research there has not been any construction [at Don Sahong] yet but they are making preparations; for the bridge, for the access road and telling villagers to get ready to move,” says Pianporn.

Adds Gerry Ryan, technical adviser with WWF-Cambodia: “It is not too late to suspend the Don Sahong project and consider smarter alternatives. Building it will almost certainly cause the extirpation of their dolphins and threaten critical fisheries.”

TIME Cambodia

Cambodia Is a Deadly Political Mess That the World Completely Ignores

Cambodian military police clash with protesters during a protest in Phnom Penh on Jan. 27, 2014 Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty Images

Friday marks six months since much maligned polls in Cambodia, where bloody crackdowns, racism and rampant human rights violations continue to define an increasingly fraught society

As Thailand teeters on the brink of a full-scale political meltdown, the simmering strife in neighboring Cambodia can be easy to miss. Yet six months after disputed elections, the situation remains grave, featuring the lethal suppression of peaceful protests and extra-judicial detentions.

The government of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen has endured for some three decades, engorged on rampant corruption and typified by gross human rights abuses. “For far too long, Hun Sen and his colleagues have been getting away with violence, human-rights abuses, corruption, and media and electoral manipulation without serious internal or external challenge,” former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans wrote in an op-ed yesterday.

Ominously, however, opposition attempts to oust Hun Sen have been increasingly marred by controversy and bloodshed.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 68 out of 123 legislative seats at general elections on July 28. The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) claims it was defrauded out of eight seats that would have swung the balance of power.

That the deck was stacked is undeniable; all major institutions including the military, police, judiciary, media and even the watchdog National Election Committee operate under the auspices of the CPP. Large numbers of opposition supporters were not included on voter lists.

“There are a lot of very specific systematic and institutional shortcomings in the way elections are administered,” says Laura Thornton, Cambodia director for the National Democratic Institute, who also cites engrained media bias and intimidation. According to a study released Friday by Harvard and Sydney University, Cambodia’s election ranked 69th out of 73 recently held worldwide.

CNRP legislators, buoyed by the return from exile of party leader Sam Rainsy, refused to take their seats, and tens of thousands took to the streets, with sporadic outbreaks of violence last September.

Increasingly, opposition protesters have found common cause with striking workers in the nation’s booming apparel sector—a $5.5 billion industry, yet one in which average monthly wages stand at only $80.

“Unless workers put in pretty outrageous levels of overtime, it in no way constitutes a living wage,” says David Welsh, Cambodia program director for the Solidarity Center labor advocacy group.

Strikers’ demands for a $160 minimum wage have been backed by the CNRP and numbers swelled at fresh protests in January. Official retribution has been harsh, however. A crackdown by security forces on the latest round of protests claimed five lives and saw another 40 demonstrators hospitalized with gunshot wounds. In addition, 21 people, including three leading union leaders, have been incarcerated without due process, and continue to languish in “very harsh conditions” by the Vietnamese border, amid “a broad-based assault on trade union rights,” says Welsh. The government is also using legal harassment: along with almost 200 civil suits filed against six major independent union federations, on Wednesday the Labor Ministry said the constitutional right to freedom of assembly had been suspended.

The possibility of further bloodshed remains high. On Tuesday, Hun Sen lifted a ban on public gatherings imposed immediately after January’s protests, but warned that opposition rallies would be met with rival groups of pro-government supporters. Judging by the bands of regime thugs at previous demonstrations, this “veiled threat” is “irresponsible and could lead to clashes,” Sam Rainsy tells TIME. “Hun Sen is probably afraid of our momentum.”

So what hope is there of a compromise? Negotiations at a “technical level” are ongoing, says Sam Rainsy, and focus on the pivotal issue of reforming the electoral process.

“If they do come to some sort of agreement on these issues, which are very important for the political negotiations, then it could pave the way for those to open again,” says Thornton.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, agrees. “The opposition need to negotiate key concessions and then agree to go into parliament,” he says.

Sam Rainsy, though, is holding out for more. Refusing to accept that the July election was legitimate, he insists on a new ballot before the end of the current term in July 2018, pushing for mid-term polls at the start of 2016. “For my party, the sooner the better,” he says.

At the same time, the surge in political unrest has led to a spike in attacks on Vietnamese, who constitute the country’s largest minority but towards whom there is much antipathy. Hun Sen is oft-portrayed as a Vietnamese puppet, and pilloried for granting land concessions to Vietnamese rubber and timber firms. Capitalizing on this, Sam Rainsy has made anti-Vietnamese sentiment an increasingly common element of his rhetoric.

On Feb. 15, a young man of Vietnamese descent, Nguyen Yaing Ngoc, was beaten to death in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district after a minor traffic infraction. Police say the word “yuon,” a local slur for Vietnamese, was bellowed before the 28-year-old’s lynching at the hands of an enraged mob.

It is a term Sam Rainsy has used repeatedly during his campaign, although he denies inciting race hatred. “We are not against the Vietnamese,” he says. “We are against Hun Sen serving a foreign country’s interest instead of his own.”

Others find it harder to draw a distinction. “Sam Rainsy is a moderate, no doubt, and is also a very smart guy, but he’s not principled,” says Ou Virak. “He’s playing with fire.”

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