Police in Oddar Meanchey province on Wednesday broke up a meeting at a private home between NGO workers and families evicted by a local plantation, claiming the NGO needed permission from the provincial government to interview the evictees.
The NGO Equitable Cambodia had sent a four-person team to the province to interview families who in 2009 lost their homes and farms to the Angkor Sugar plantation, which, according to the families, has planted only cassava on the land.
The team was in the middle of a meeting with about 20 families inside the private home of one of the evictees in Samraong City when local police and military police arrived, said Huy Mey, who claims to have lost her own home and 25-hectare farm to Angkor Sugar.
“The authorities told the organization to get a permission letter from the provincial level, otherwise they would not be allowed to do the interviews,” she said.
Ms. Mey said the NGO workers were forced to leave and that the families disbanded after that.
Provincial police chief Men Maly conceded that there was no law requiring permission for a meeting inside a private residence, but insisted that the NGO needed it anyway.
“It is not the law to have a permission letter to interview villagers, but they must let our authorities know because the area is under the control of my local authorities,” he said, going on to accuse the NGO of inciting villagers who had already been compensated by the company.
Ms. Mey said she has never been compensated and was forced to move in with her daughter after being evicted.
Eang Vuthy, Equitable Cambodia’s executive director, said the police had stopped the meeting in contravention of the law and that the NGO had no intention of asking the government to interview families now or ever.
“We are not going to ask for permission because this is against the Constitution and against the rights of the people and their right to movement…. We are free to do this work,” he said.
Mr. Vuthy said the NGO was in the process of filing a formal complaint against the authorities with the Ministry of Interior.
Oddar Meanchey authorities have harassed people trying to interview the evictees before.
Two Equitable Cambodia staff were detained overnight by local police while visiting evicted families last month and driven back to Phnom Penh. In March, auditors from Coca-Cola investigating allegations of human rights abuses in its sugar supply chain called off a planned meeting with evictees after being followed by police.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)