In Southeast Asia, protecting the environment is its own hazard

Subel Rai Bhandari for RFA
In Southeast Asia, protecting the environment is its own hazard Environmental activists Jhed Tamano (left) and Jonila Castro arrive at the Court of Appeals in Manila, Feb. 22, 2024.
Gerard Carreon/BenarNews

In September, environmentalists Jonila Castro and Jhed Tamano planned to take a nighttime bus ride to Orion village along Manila Bay in the Philippines to protest construction threatening to displace residents.

As Castro and Tamano prepared to board, a military SUV raced up from behind and a half dozen masked men jumped out to seize the pair.

The women, who are around 5 feet tall and in their early 20s, cried for help and tried to fight back. But they said they were quickly overpowered, tied up, blindfolded, gagged and shoved inside the vehicle to be whisked away to an unknown location.

“I was actually thinking while we were in the car, ‘Oh, it’s my end,’” Castro, 23, told Radio Free Asia, a news service affiliated with BenarNews.

It’s a fear environmental activists across Southeast Asia can relate to. Instances of harassment and abuse similar to Castro’s and Tamano’s ordeal occur with regularity in the region, even as countries seek massive foreign investments to help them deal with the growing threat of climate change.

The two young activists are, in fact, among the lucky ones. They were eventually released and have continued their work, though they face defamation charges for saying the military is responsible for their abduction.

The London-based NGO Global Witness said 281 activists in the Philippines have been killed since 2012. In 2022, at least 16 environmentalists were killed in Asia, including 11 in the Philippines and three in Indonesia. In addition, environmentalists are under threat in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam.

“Defending the environment is a very dangerous activity in Southeast Asia,” said Lia Mai Torres, the head of the secretariat at the Manila-based Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders.

“We have enforced disappearances. We have bombings in our communities and militarization. We have killings of farmers and indigenous people just for working on their land.”

Work proceeds on a land reclamation project in Pasay on Manila Bay, Feb. 14, 2024. [Subel Rai Bhandari/RFA]


Castro and Tamano worked with AKAP KA Manila Bay, advocating for coastal communities in Bataan province facing displacement from land reclamation.

The area surrounding the bay’s more than 770 square miles (2,000 square km) features the country’s largest cargo shipping hub, expanding commercial activity, including a rising number of tourism-focused businesses, and new construction of upscale residences.

The two women say the development is having a devastating effect on the people of Bulacan province, where they grew up. Dredging has slashed fish catches, destroyed mangroves and forced more than 700 families to move. It has also increased flooding, including in inland areas.

Philippine military officials have denied any involvement in the pair’s abduction, asserting instead that they were taken by the leftist New People’s Army.

“They kept on linking our organization to the communist organization,” Castro said. “Whatever we said, it did not matter.”

The activists said they were freed 17 days after their capture when they agreed to “voluntarily surrender” to military authorities as communists. In the Philippines, this widely used tactic is known as “red-tagging” and is used to undermine or silence dissent.

Both Tamano and Castro said they would continue their environmental activism, despite the threat.

Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly, shown in these undated photos, was sentenced to five years in prison after helping flood victims in Laos and making allegations of corruption. [Citizen journalist]

Quiet support

In Laos, Joseph Akaravong was forced to flee the country when police issued a warrant for his arrest after he posted videos of villagers complaining about lost land to a hydropower dam. Houayheuang “Muay” Xayabouly remains jailed after helping flood victims and alleging corruption.

“In Laos, you will not find publicly open environmental rights defenders anymore,” said Emilie Palamy Pradichit, founder and executive director of Manushya Foundation, a Bangkok-based feminist human rights organization. “Everybody is very paranoid and we’re very, very scared of repercussions by the government.”

In neighboring Cambodia, authorities in Preah Vihear province allegedly forced activist Hiem Kimhong to sign a statement on Feb. 27 agreeing not to criticize them in interviews with RFA’s Khmer Service. He has helped villagers fight to keep their land from developers and criticized local officials for their apparent inaction.

“If authorities can’t resolve the issue and people still complain, I will echo them,” he said. “I am not afraid.”

Phuon “Keo” Keoraksmey is another Cambodian environmentalist who has been targeted by the government. 

In 2020, she joined Mother Nature Cambodia, a youth-led environmental movement. Several of its activists have been arrested and its founder, Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, was forced to flee the country.

Keoraksmey herself was detained four months after joining the group while marching to the prime minister’s residence to protest against development around the Boeung Tamok Lak in Phnom Penh. 

She ended up serving 14 months for incitement. Upon her release in 2021, Keoraksmey resumed her activism despite facing a second trial on plotting charges. If found guilty, she could be sentenced to 10 years.

Keoraksmey said she takes strength in the quiet support from members of her community. She said more people would speak out but for fear of being punished by their government.

Phuon “Keo” Keoraksmey protests at an environmental rally in Phnom Penh in an undated photo. [Provided by Phuon Keoraksmey]

“Occasionally, local river vendors give me clams for free,” Keoraksmey said. “When I ask why, they say they admire my work and want to support our cause in their own way.” 

Lao and Cambodian officials did not immediately respond to RFA requests for comment.

Mixed messages

The arrests and harassment come as the region is facing a grave threat in climate change.

Roughly 77% of the people in Southeast Asia live along its 234,000-km coastline. Many are susceptible to rapidly rising sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events.

The area’s resource-dependent economies also make them vulnerable to climate shifts. The Asian Development Bank said Southeast Asia faces larger potential losses from climate change than most regions, noting the region’s GDP could fall by 11% by the end of this century.

The Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam are among the top 20 globally for climate-related loss events between 2000 and 2019, according to a study published in 2021. 

And yet in Vietnam authorities have arrested at least 12 people with a history of environmental activism, mainly on what critics said are bogus tax evasion charges, according to rights group The 88 Project. 

Many of the activists had actually helped Hanoi develop its climate policy, which is widely regarded as ambitious and has attracted tens of billions of dollars in international support.

Pradichit at the Manushya Foundation said repressive governments such as Vietnam’s exploit environmentalists to secure grants from developed countries and international financial institutions.

“But once they secured the funding,” Pradichit said, “the government puts them in jail.” 

A fisherman organizes his net in Malate on Manila Bay, Feb. 13, 2024. [Subel Rai Bhandari/RFA]

She said the activists are not necessarily pro-democracy or anti-state, but authorities fear them for the type of open policy making they endorse. They emphasize public participation, access to information and consideration of environmental concerns in addition to profit.

A spokesperson for Vietnam’s Public Security Ministry said there is “absolutely no truth to the claim” the country is targeting environmental activists.

A worrying rise

In December, Vietnam signed a deal for U.S. $15.5 billion in funds to transition away from fossil fuels under the Just Energy Transition Partnerships where wealthy countries help poorer ones prepare for climate change.

Ironically, the push for clean energy in some cases contributes to pollution problems activists are fighting against. A mining boom of minerals needed for batteries – including lithium, nickel and cobalt – has incentivized “extractivist development models that put frontline communities at risk,” according to Hanna Hindstrom, a senior investigator at Global Witness.

She said she has seen a “worrying rise in the criminalization of environmental campaigners in the region.”

Donor countries for the Just Energy Transition Partnerships and similar projects should require governments to adhere to certain basic human rights and include local and indigenous communities in their project development efforts, Hindstrom said.

“We cannot have ‘just’ transitions without protecting environmental defenders,” she said.

Activists have appealed to donor countries to pressure governments to stop abusing environmental advocates, but to little avail, said Torres of the Asia Pacific Network of Environment Defenders in Manila.

“When you speak in front of an audience, in meetings with diplomats, they always say that they sympathize with environmental defenders, that they want to improve the situation,” Torres told RFA. “But I think what’s lacking here is the political will to actually do something.”

She said countries are reluctant to press the issue for fear of damaging their diplomatic relationships.

Environmental activists Jhed Tamano (middle left) and Jonila Castro (middle right) speak to reporters outside the Court of Appeals in Manila, Feb. 22, 2024. [Gerard Carreon/BenarNews]

A hard job made harder

Filipinas Castro and Tamano spent eight days in captivity without their friends and family knowing what had happened to them. 

Eventually, Tamano said, they were forced to act as if they had voluntarily surrendered at a military camp in Bulacan. In February, the country’s Supreme Court issued a protection order and said their captivity was a clear violation of their rights.

But the Philippines Department of Justice recommended the two face defamation charges for taking “advantage of the benevolence of the [Philippine military] to embarrass and put them in a bad light.”

Instead of listening and working with environmentalists, the government is threatening and attacking its own people, Castro said.

“Obviously, facing climate change and environmental problems is hard, but it became harder because of the repression of the government.”


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