Following a week in which Mondolkiri provincial police prevented journalists from two news organizations from traveling freely, Minister of Information Lu Laysreng said Tuesday that the country has no travel restrictions.
“Usually a reporter is allowed to travel freely,” Lu Laysreng said by telephone.
Reporters are allowed to report and travel freely “according to our law,” he added. “There are no restrictions.”
The minister’s comments represent the disconnect between official government policy and the actions of provincial police along the Cambodian border with Vietnam.
Last week, Mondolkiri police detained newspaper reporters in Pech Chhreada district’s Bou Sra commune for almost one hour before telling them to leave the district. On Tuesday, the French-language newspaper Cambodge Soir also reported that well-armed security forces stopped one of its reporters from traveling north about 40 km from the provincial capital Sen Monorom, and ordered them to turn back.
CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Tuesday that he was not aware of any travel restrictions in Mondolkiri and blamed local authorities for the recent incidents. He added that he would check with Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng to see if restrictions had been ordered, but did not answer phone calls later in the day.
The de facto travel restrictions outraged opposition lawmakers and human rights advocates.
“We’ve never seen this kind of restriction imposed until recently,” said opposition lawmaker Son Chhay. “It’s a major violation. We have to do something about it.”
“This kind of order is very clear to us,” he added. “It’s not given on a black and white document, but rather verbally. If nothing is done to stop the activity, then clearly it’s an order from the Ministry of Interior.”
Kek Galabru, president of the human rights group Licadho, said reports of travel restrictions in Mondolkiri left her “surprised and saddened.”
“It’s not a situation of war,” she said Tuesday. “I hope this is only temporary.”
The travel situation in Mondolkiri is reminiscent of life before 1992, Kek Galabru said. In those pre-Constitution times of communist government rule, villagers needed permission to travel from one province to another. Back then, police could detain or arrest anyone who traveled without permission.
“Are we going back to that?” Kek Galabru asked. “This is against the country’s Constitution.”
The Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to travel freely in the country. “[A] citizen’s freedom to travel, far and near…shall be respected,” states Article 40.
Freedom of travel includes freedom from harassment, Kek Galabru added.
“If you go somewhere but someone follows you, you are not free,” she said.
Human rights workers in Mondolkiri said Tuesday that the police presence has intensified in the past few weeks as authorities search for about 100 Montagnard asylum seekers reportedly hiding in the Mondolkiri jungle.
One Mondolkiri-based rights worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tuesday that police stopped cars at checkpoints to search for Montagnards, suspecting the asylum seekers might try to sneak their way to UN protection in Phnom Penh.
The worker also said that police banned four tourists from visiting Pdo Pran mountain in Pech Chhreada district earlier this week.
Another Mondolkiri aid worker said Tuesday that “many more police than before” are swarming around the province.
“The soldiers do not hide in the villages as they had done before, but they are hiding in the forest or patrol from one plantation to the next and then sleep in the jungle,” the worker said.
Mondolkiri Police Chief Reach Samnang and his deputies could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Last week, Um Pho, a provincial deputy police chief, said Vietnam has rewarded Mondolkiri police for deporting “many” Montagnard asylum seekers, which the government defines as illegal immigrants.
Donors countries voiced little concern about the situation on Tuesday.
The US Embassy declined to comment. The embassies of Japan and France, two of the country’s largest bilateral donors, said they would reply if they had a comment. They did not return phone calls.