Uniformed police quashed a pair of USAID-funded human rights workshops in Preah Vihear and Ratanakkiri provinces yesterday, in what rights group Adhoc suggested was an act of politically motivated overreach.
But commune, district and provincial authorities yesterday defended their decision to send in police to clamp down on the program, claiming Adhoc had not sought permission through the correct bureaucratic channels.
The workshops – called the Empowering Marginalised Communities program – are funded by USAID to the tune of $1.1 million and implemented by Adhoc.
Adhoc Ratanakkiri coordinator Chhay Thy said he had sent a letter to the provincial authorities to inform them of the group’s activities in January and hinted the move to cancel them contained a political element.
“We could not conduct the training because the police and district and commune authorities came to stop us,” Thi said.
“We do not know why they restricted our activities. We do not know whether it is due to the upcoming election, or if it is just a single issue in this location.”
“Since UNTAC [the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia in 1993], we have never had such a problem.”
Thy maintained NGOs had a legal right to carry out programs if they informed the authorities.
Ro Cham Ley, Keh Chung commune chief, said the rules had changed and the group now needed permission to run such events.
“I asked the district authority to stop the activities because he did not have permission,” Ley said.
Meas Sareth, acting chief of Bakeo district, said he did not wish to prevent Adhoc from running human rights awareness programs, but reiterated that the group did not have permission.
But in Preah Vihear, where Adhoc provincial coordinator Lor Chan said he had indeed secured permission from the provincial authorities and notified the district, police were still sent in to halt the workshops.
“The Sangkum Thmei district governor ordered police to stop the training course,” he said. “People were scared because of the presence of the police.”
Chan said the governors wanted to keep people in the dark on how to file complaints in order to maintain their grip on power.
“There are many scandals in the district, and the district governors are afraid of people being educated about their rights.
There are many land issues and the destruction of forests in this district. [The governor] fears losing his position.”
Chan said 40 villagers had hoped to attend the workshop on Monday, but the number dwindled to half that size yesterday amid police intimidation.
Sangkum Thmei District Governor Ros Heng defended his actions, saying if Chan did indeed have a permission letter, he could file a complaint to the provincial governor.
“I did not intimidate the people who attended the training. I just wanted to stop it because they had no permission,” he said. “We want it to go through administrative procedure to prevent chaos.”
Jay Raman, spokesperson for the US Embassy, said USAID abides by local laws in Cambodia to deliver its programs, which aim to help victims of human rights abuses obtain fair redress and educate them on their civil liberties.
“The United States believes that a frank and honest discussion of human rights is an important aspect of Cambodia’s continued development,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ERIN HANDLEY