Phnom Penh security forces on Sunday blocked activists from riding their bicycles around the city to promote their campaign against the pending construction of a hydropower dam in Koh Kong province, claiming the organizers failed to ask City Hall for permission.
The NGO Mother Nature has been campaigning on behalf of an ethnic minority Chong community in Koh Kong that wants the government to cancel its plans for the 108-MW Stung Areng dam. The project will force hundreds of them to relocate and flood much of their ancestral homeland along with forests that are home to some endangered species.
The NGO was planning to spread news of its campaign by leading a bicycle tour Sunday around Phnom Penh, mostly with supporters from the Khmer Youth Empire, a youth group that has advocated for a broad range of mostly liberal causes. About 40 of them had gathered at Mother Nature’s Phnom Penh office in Meanchey district by early afternoon.
Mother Nature co-founder Alex Gonzalez-Davidson said the group planned to ride around the city for about three hours handing out leaflets. He said the NGO had informed City Hall of its plans on August 11, as per the Law on Peaceful Assembly.
Before they could set off, however, about 60 district security guards, police and military police arrived to tell them to stop and to block their way.
Lim Kimsor, a Khmer Youth Empire activist, said the authorities had no right to stop their ride.
“We just wanted to ride our bicycles to disseminate information about the impact [of the dam] on the environment, and we informed them but they didn’t allow us. We are upset about it,” he said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the ride had been rightfully blocked because the NGO gave the city a notification of its plans when it should have asked for permission.
“They have to submit a letter to ask for permission, but they only sent a letter to inform us, so we could not let them do it,” he said.
The assembly law in fact only requires a group to “notify” authorities of its plans five days in advance, and requires the same authorities to “respond positively” unless the planned events falls on a handful of national holidays or if it has clear information that the event may seriously jeopardize security, safety or public order.
It does not officially require a request for permission.
Mr. Gonzalez-Davidson said the authorities’ decision to block the ride may have earned the group more publicity and media attention than if the ride had gone ahead.
“The idea was to promote the Areng Valley…and that’s exactly what we achieved,” he said. “In terms of promotion, we’re really happy about it.”