Ratanakkiri Provincial Police brought in 15 villagers for questioning on Saturday over their participation in a demonstration last week against a Canadian gold mining company.
Korng Thom village resident Les Virak, 24, said the protesters were brought to O’Yadav District Police station to be questioned by Provincial Deputy Police Chief Chea Bunthoeun and Pate Commune Chief Chhay Thy over suspicions that the protest had been politically motivated – though both officials failed yesterday to explain how the protest might have actually violated the law.
Thy, a former Adhoc staffer and prominent government critic who made a surprise defection to the ruling party in January, called for “immediate” action after roughly 700 Jarai villagers staged a demonstration last week against Angkor Gold, which they claim is taking their land. Thy claimed the opposition party and an unnamed NGO had organised the protest “for political gain”.
But Virak, who said he was brought in for questioning again yesterday, denied Thy’s claims. “[The police] wanted to know who led the protest,” said Virak. “We all from the village did it together, but no one led it.”
According to Virak, the police told villagers that their protest was illegal because they did not ask for permission. He said they were also made to thumbprint contracts promising not to stage any more protests without permission.
“We are not the opposition party,” Virak said. “We just do not want the company to do gold mine exploration in our community forest.”
In fact, citizens do not have to ask for permission to hold protests under the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, said Duch Piseth, advocacy director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. Under articles 5 and 10 of the law, protesters merely have to give authorities advance notice of the protest, and non-response is considered approval. “Both sides need to understand the provisions of the peaceful demonstration law,” Piseth said. “They are required to notify, not to ask permission.”
Piseth also said that the police’s actions could send the wrong message to villagers.
“Police can ask for more information, but to question them for holding a peaceful demonstration could make the community feel afraid of the authorities,” he said.
Virak said that he eventually told police that NGO Khmerleu – also called the Highlanders Association – was helping the villagers.
A Khmerleu staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution, said that provincial police also recently came to the NGO’s office with photos of a colleague taken at the protest to ask why the staff member was there. The NGO has confirmed attending the protest but denied doing anything that would qualify as “incitement”.
The investigation follows a directive from the Interior Ministry to provincial officials last month to aggressively report activities carried out by NGOs.
Buntheoun declined to comment yesterday beyond confirming that police are working on the case.
Thy said he did not have information about the continuing police investigation but claimed he raised concerns because local elders had said they were worried that an unnamed NGO was inciting youth.
“I have experience from NGO work,” said Thy. “If the people have problems, the NGO should investigate it to understand it clearly ... But this NGO does not. It is like they dream the conflict up and when they wake up they just put up banners and take photos for social media. This is not good.”
While a coordinator for Adhoc, Thy was himself accused of inciting villagers to demonstrate against private companies and was regularly quoted defending freedom of assembly, such as in 2013, when the governor of Ratanakkiri banned citizens from participating in any NGO events during the election period.
“People have a right to participate in meetings and any events, and our constitution does not stop people from doing so during the election time,” Thy was quoted as saying.
Angkor Gold has previously denied the villagers’ claims, stating that their current exploration activities are “quite far from Korng Thorn”.
Additional reporting by Daphne Chen