Phnom Penh Municipal Hall yesterday defended the actions of police and security guards who blocked protesters as they tried to leave the capital’s Boeung Kak area before they stopped and searched an NGO’s vehicle.
Dozens of Daun Penh district police, security guards and military police blockaded a road near Calmette Hospital as protesters tried to move from their community to Wat Phnom and on to the Supreme Court at about 8am in a march to mark the first anniversary of the arrest and imprisonment of Boeung Kak land-rights activist Yorm Bopha.
After authorities confiscated protest material, District Governor Sok Sambath ordered the combined forces to block a pick-up truck carrying employees of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“We suspect the vehicle is transporting something for the protesters,” he said to onlookers, without adding why that warranted a search.
The Post heard police officers saying they believed the vehicle was transporting anti-government propaganda and unspecified illegal items.
“Some vehicles we’ve stopped before … have been transporting [rosewood], so now we suspect this NGO vehicle is carrying something illegal,” one officer said.
Another officer told the CCHR’s driver that “if you’re not carrying anything illegal, you should let us check”.
Authorities soon searched the back of the vehicle, which bears the logos of the CCHR and European Union, but only found items such as lotus flowers and T-shirts calling for Bopha’s release.
“We’re not carrying explosives or drugs or anything illegal,” CCHR’s land reform coordinator Van Sophath said. “They’re trying to search the vehicle without following procedure. I’m afraid they will plant something illegal [if they check the cabin]. I demand they invite the prosecutor to come and check, then allow us to go.”
It wasn’t until shortly before midday that municipal deputy prosecutor Chuon Narin arrived and the vehicle was searched in the presence of representatives from other NGOs, the EU and the UN.
Nothing more than items for the Boeung Kak villagers’ demonstrations was uncovered and the pick-up was soon allowed to be driven away.
Despite this, Long Dimanche, Phnom Penh municipal spokesman, claimed the incident was an example of NGOs leading villagers on “illegal protests”.
“NGO officials using their vehicles to take protest materials is illegal,” he said. “When they register as an NGO with the Ministry of Interior, they agree not to get involved in politics. Right now, we’re seeing many NGOs that are political,” he said, without elaborating on how protests over a rights activist’s arrest were political.
Dimanche added that the municipality does “not allow Boeung Kak villagers to demonstrate outside of Boeung Kak” but they always do so “illegally”.
A CCHR statement said the villagers had informed City Hall of their plans to protest and were told they had to keep it confined to Boeung Kak if it involved more than 200 people. But they had proceeded anyway, “believing that there were no legal grounds to prevent them from peacefully demonstrating”.
CCHR added that its staff had been asked by the community to transport their demonstration materials – which included flowers and shirts – saying they believed the items would be confiscated if police spotted the materials being carried out. A Post reporter observed this exchange.
“The CCHR team did as the community asked and drove towards the exit,” the statement said. “The CCHR team asked the police what grounds they had to search the van, to which the police responded that the community activities were not supposed to leave the Boeung Kak area and that the CCHR team was therefore not permitted to transport campaigns [sic] material on the community’s behalf.”
During the blockade, combined forces also confiscated drums, flags and lotus flowers from protesters, resulting in a tuk-tuk driver being struck in the head when he refused to relinquish his load.
“The villagers have hired me to take it for them,” he shouted. “If you take it from me, how can I pay the community for losing it?”
At one point, security guards tried to load the confiscated materials into police vehicles, only for the police officers to tell them to stop.
Eventually, officers permitted residents through, allowing them to continue their march to the Supreme Court.
Rights group Adhoc said authorities had “demonstrated grave incompetence” in how they had handled the situation.
“Not only have they harassed an NGO worker carrying out his legitimate human rights work, they have again shown that they are unwilling to tolerate protest,” Adhoc said in a statement. “The actions of the authorities this morning are in clear violation of Cambodian law.”