Ratanakkiri provincial officials have ordered that all nongovernmental agencies in the province must now request permission to leave the province, NGO staff reported Thursday.
The latest restriction on the right to travel in the northeastern provinces followed the detention on Tuesday of seven Cambodian hill tribe minority members who were stopped by Kratie provincial police while traveling to an environmental seminar in Phnom Penh, police and aid workers said.
Human right workers on Thursday attacked the latest infringements on Cambodia’s Constitutionally-protected right to travel freely.
Kol Savaon, Kratie’s Sambo district police chief, said Thursday that his forces stopped the group, which consisted of seven ethnic minorities and two members of the Ratanakkiri-based aid group Non-Timber Forest Products, and ordered them to stay in a house near a police post in the province.
After the nine stayed the night in Sandan commune, Ratanakkiri Governor Kham Khoeun ordered police to let the aid workers go to Phnom Penh, but the seven Cambodian ethnic minorities were forced to return to their homes in Ratanakkiri, Kol Savaon said.
“We were worried that they were Montagnard [asylum-seekers] because there were a lot of them in two cars and they didn’t inform local authorities about their trip,” Kol Savaon said.
The incident prompted Kham Khoeun to hastily assemble a meeting of Ratanakkiri aid groups on Wednesday where he informed them that they needed to receive permission from his office to travel outside the province, said several sources who attended the meeting.
Kham Khoeun did not answer repeated calls for comment on Thursday.
“We were not aware we needed to request permission” to travel outside the province, Gordon Patterson, head of Non-Timber Forest Products, said Thursday.
Hor Ang, deputy police chief of Ratanakkiri, said Thursday that the governor didn’t order the seven minorities who live along the Se San arrested, only that their vehicle be stopped.
“It is a warning to the NGOs,” he said.
Last month, reporters were detained for traveling near the border areas of Mondolkiri province. At the time, Information Minister Lu Laysreng said that no travel restrictions existed in the country.
For the past few months, the government has accused the UN and various aid groups of “trafficking” Montagnard asylum-seekers to Phnom Penh. The UN has vehemently denied those accusations.
At least 21 Montagnard asylum-seekers are hiding in Ratanakkiri with little food and water, and local sources say about 160 are hiding in jungles near the border.
The government has a policy of defining Montagnard asylum-seekers as illegal immigrants and deporting them back to Vietnam.
Pen Bonnar, Ratanakkiri provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, was outraged at the governor’s order that aid groups receive state approval to travel out of the province.
“If he does this it violates the Constitution, which guarantees the rights of people” to travel, he said.
The nine were on their way to a conference concerning proposed Vietnamese dams on the Se San River, said Kim Sangha, an official with the Se San Protection Network.
“I am considering a complaint to a human rights group about the actions of the governor,” he said Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)