A team of security officials led by a commune chief descended on a private home in rural Koh Kong province on Friday morning to prevent a group of students and activists from holding a democracy training session, an activist and officials said.
Two members of the environmental protection group Mother Nature and four students from the Royal University of Law and Economics were set to host the event in Botum Sakor district, but were stopped before it could begin.
“They do not have a letter of permission,” said commune chief Hy Tann, who deployed local security guards to shut down the training session.
Mr. Tann confirmed that he had received a letter of notification from the group, signed by Thun Ratha, one of the Mother Nature members, but said that was not sufficient documentation for the plans to go ahead.
“We saw their objective and the signature of Thun Ratha but no institution. Is it an administrative letter? Should I grant them permission?”
Mr. Tann said that if the students and activists, who were planning two days of training sessions, went ahead, they would face legal action.
Mother Nature has made headlines this year for its militant tactics, mostly centered around efforts to stop illegal sand dredging and the construction of a controversial hydropower dam in Koh Kong.
In February, the organization’s co-founder, Spanish national Alex Gonzalez-Davidson, was deported after the government refused to renew his visa.
In August, three Mother Nature activists were jailed for their efforts to intervene against the sand dredging.
Mr. Ratha, one of the organizers of the canceled democracy sessions, explained that they planned to teach residents of Ta Meak village about their right to freedom of expression in response to complaints from villagers that their voices were being stymied by authorities.
“I think this shows that authorities do not want villagers to understand the law. When they do understand their rights, authorities cannot use their power like dictators to violate villagers,” Mr. Ratha said.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, defended the local officials.
“Authorities have done the right thing,” he said. “We know that Mother Nature always causes problems and incites people.”