A gathering in Svay Rieng province of some 40 villagers led by a farmers’ organisation was shut down by local police on Thursday because the group allegedly had not requested permission, though provincial authorities had been notified the week before.
The crackdown makes the event the fourth Cambodia Coalition of Farmer Community (CCFC) gathering this month to either be blocked by authorities or see its participants harassed over an alleged lack of official permission and unfounded suspicions the group is linked to an ex-opposition “movement”.
On Tuesday, authorities from the same district summoned villagers for questioning over alleged Cambodia National Rescue Movement connections after they and other communities organised by CCFC delivered a petition seeking the resolution of a land dispute.
CCFC staffers were questioned over similar fears after a Takeo meeting with farmers was broken up on March 6. An International Women’s Day event hosted by the group was dispersed by authorities a day later in Tbong Khmum.
Meun Ratana, the deputy general secretary of CCFC, said the event on Thursday was aimed simply at explaining to farmers how to obtain National Social Security Fund cards and obtain entitlements such as free health care at government clinics.
Five district and commune police officers demanded to see permission letters, to which Ratana replied that none of his team had copies on hand, as they had provided them to the provincial authorities the week before. Provincial authorities then insisted Ratana pick up the permission papers at the provincial hall to deliver them back to local police.
Suon Sayha, a community representative, said tensions flared between villagers and police when they came to shut down the event and barred villagers from taking pictures. “[They] got into a hot argument,” he said, noting that although five villagers had their phone photos deleted there was “no serious clash”.
“The people are also angry with the authorities because we did not do anything illegal,” he said.
Sam Sam Ol, Romeas Hek district police chief, declined to comment on the case, though Ampil Commune Police Chief Nhean Phaen said the shutdown was procedural and would not have happened had they had proper documents. He also denied that tempers had flared.
“There is no argument,” he said.CCFC President Theng Savoeun called for a stop to authorities’ “intrusive” actions, saying the group’s documentation with the Interior Ministry is in order.
“It is the excuse of authorities that do not want people to gather, and people are not satisfied . . . because they violate their freedom,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak declined to comment on why CCFC has been repeatedly subjected to scrutiny by police throughout the country in the past month, or on why it has in the past been labelled part of a revolutionary plot.
Am Sam Ath, from rights group Licadho, cautioned that continued infringement on the rights of free expression and assembly could cause problems for the government. “It will make the people angrier with the authorities . . . and I think maybe the people will protest or [do] something against [the] authorities,” he said.
Additional reporting by Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon