ON the eve of a nationwide grassroots celebration to mark International Human Rights Day, several communities involved in recent rights disputes said events they had planned faced obstruction by authorities.
Since 2004, Friends of December 10 – an informal network of rights activists that includes trade unions, NGOs, community groups and monks – has helped stage locally driven rights day events across the country. This year, the group is supporting 70 events in 17 provinces, in which more than 10,000 Cambodians are expected to take part.
Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said it was not coincidental that “the areas where there are land disputes are the same places where authorities have prevented [celebrations]”, citing the attempted cancellation of events in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Kak lake and a village in Prey Veng province.
Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said: “It seems particularly tough to obtain official authorisation to conduct human rights marches and celebrations in areas where villagers have been confronting serious rights abuses such as land grabbing and forced evictions, making officials more sensitive to public gatherings and publicity.”
One such area is Siem Reap province’s Chi Kraeng commune, where villagers are embroiled in an ongoing land dispute. Police have used guns, residents have been detained unlawfully and families have been prevented from travelling to see relatives.
Loun Sovath, the Chi Kraeng monk who organised the commune’s event, said he was confronted on Wednesday by a group of 30 officials who demanded he produce a letter of permission from the Siem Reap provincial office. The result of the encounter was inconclusive.
“The authorities still have not told us directly whether they’ve banned us or allowed us, but their activities seem intended to discourage our celebration,” Loun Sovath said, adding “we will still celebrate it”.
Loun Sovath said that he expected 1,000 people to show up for a ceremonial parade through the village to the pagoda, where he would hand over a 20-page text related to Buddhism and human rights, including poetry describing human rights to villagers.
He said the run-in with the authorities would only serve to promote the event. “I was not worried by their threats. By contrast, I am happy, because I have time to speak with them and I am responsible for the event, but I will not be responsible for any violent activities caused by drunken men.”
Tork Ponloek, also of Chi Kraeng, said he was excited to take part in the ceremony. “I have never heard or seen such a ceremony held in my community,” he said. “I want to know about human rights to help me be more brave when I protest that someone is abusing my rights.”
In 2005, after 7,000 people attended a rights day celebration in Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium, three leaders of human rights NGOs – Yeng Virak, Kem Sokha and Pa Nguon Teng – were arrested.
Under international pressure, they were released in early 2006, but their criminal cases remain active.
Many of their peers were less fortunate. “More than 40 human rights defenders and community activists will spend human rights day in a Cambodian prison,” Colm said.
“Many of them were arrested on spurious charges for helping to organise and represent fellow community members facing eviction or illegal confiscation of their land. Human rights groups will be trying to visit many of those prisoners on Human Rights Day, along with the prisoners’ families, to make sure they know that they have not been forgotten.”