Local rights group Adhoc has accused provincial traffic police in Ratanakkiri province of intimidating villagers who were traveling to join a Thursday morning land-rights rally.
According to Adhoc provincial coordinator Pen Bonnar, a dozen police were stationed at the three main roads leading to the rally site in the provincial capital, Banlung town.
Their presence, he said, caused hundreds of villagers to turn back when they saw the traffic officers stopping motorcycles and fining villagers on their way to the rally.
“A notorious rumor was also spread in Bokeo district that rally attendees would be killed in a grenade attack,” Pen Bonnar said.
Organizers had expected more than 1,000 indigenous villagers to join in the rally. Instead, Pen Bonnar said, more than 500 demonstrators marched a 5-km route around Banlung, demanding full enforcement of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s orders against deforestation, land-grabbing and illegal logging.
Sun Ven, who attended the rally, said 100 villagers from his community in Batang commune had planned to attend, but 30 of them turned back because they had no money to pay police.
“Several of my villagers were fined 5,000 riel for driving without road tax stickers on their motorcycles or for driving without a number plate,” he said.
“Because the rally had permission from the Ministry of the Interior, the provincial authorities did not use water to disperse us but instead used traffic police to make trouble,” he added.
Last December police broke up a similarly peaceful Adhoc-led march in Banlung with a fire-truck-mounted water cannon.
Provincial Traffic Police Chief Phen Dina dismissed the allegations Thursday.
“I can confirm that my traffic police are always stationed along those roads,” he said. “The fines and on-the-spot education for traffic abusers and law breakers have nothing to do with Adhoc’s rally.”
Acting provincial police chief Prey Chrom said he had met with UN officials about the possibility of suspending traffic fines for the rally day, but he declined to say what the result of the meeting had been.
“The deployment of traffic police along the road happens permanently and every day,” he said. “Our police did not block the road or ban villagers from attending the rally.”
He admitted that some drivers had turned around when they saw the traffic police but said that police wouldn’t have fined the traveling demonstrators if they had been able to display personal “invitation cards” from Adhoc to attend the rally.
Pen Bonnar countered that local traffic police are typically deployed for fining just once a week, and never simultaneously at all the major roads leading to Banlung.
“If provincial authorities had a strong will to carry out the orders to combat and eliminate deforestation and illegal logging, they would have joined our rally. We invited them,” he said.
Only five government officials attended the rally, he said.