Authorities in Ratanakkiri province last week broke up a church meeting on the grounds that the organizers failed to secure government permission, a clear breach of the Law on Peaceful Assembly, which exempts religious gatherings from such rules.
Local authorities often break up meetings hosted by NGOs for the same reason, a practice the NGOs blame on a government intent on stifling dissent.
The 2009 assembly law requires the organizers of certain gatherings to notify authorities in advance. But it grants a clear exemption for “gatherings for the purposes of serving religion, art, culture, national customs and tradition, and educational dissemination activities for social interests.”
Despite the exemption, police in Bakeo district on Wednesday broke up a group of about 50 ethnic minority Jarai who had gathered for a Bible study session.
“We have done like this all the time, and now they said that unless we have a formal letter [of permission] they will not let us gather,” said Klan Hlang, one of the attendees. “I’m disappointed. If they want us to do that they should have told us.”
District governor Heng Bunny defended the decision to break up the meeting. “We want to avoid anarchy,” he said.
Presented with the relevant article in the assembly law, Mr. Bunny insisted that the police did nothing wrong. “There are rights but there are also limits,” he said. “We have to respect each other. The authorities have the right to take care of their jurisdiction.”
Deputy provincial governor Nhem Sam Oun also defended the breakup, arguing that police were right to be alarmed by Christians gathering outside of a Sunday.
“The most important thing is security,” he said. “If they do like usual in their church on a Sunday, that would be normal.”
Chhay Thy, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, which has also had many meetings dispersed, said police had no right to stop the religious gathering.
“We have seen tighter restrictions on democracy in violation of the Constitution,” he said. “The Constitution clearly states the right to gather and the freedom of expression.”