Police in Ratanakkiri province on Tuesday ordered rights group Adhoc to call off a planned workshop meant to inform local indigenous communities of their rights, claiming the NGO had failed to secure the necessary permission from authorities.
Adhoc provincial coordinator Chhay Thy said he and his staff arrived at the Krieng village community center in Bakeo district just after 8 a.m. and that about 20 police arrived minutes later to shut the event down.
“As we were about to hang up a banner, about 20 police and military police from the commune and district arrived not just to interrupt us but to completely prevent us from holding the training with indigenous communities,” he said.
Contacted later, acting district governor Meas Sareth said Adhoc had failed to obtain prior approval for the event.
“I didn’t go there to ban them, but I asked [Mr. Thy] to postpone the training session because I wanted him to get permission from provincial authorities,” he said. “We decided to ask for a postponement because we need him to provide a written letter explaining the purpose of the session and the agenda.”
Asked what law required prior approval for such a meeting, Mr. Sareth declined to comment.
“I am happy to have him join in disseminating laws to local people, but we need him to follow the structure,” he said instead.
Mr. Thy said the authorities had no right to stop the meeting, which was part of a U.S.-funded program.
“There is no law requiring us to ask for permission, because the Interior Ministry only requires any organization with a permanent office in a province to inform authorities five days before the day of the session,” he said.
Mr. Thy said he sent the notice to the provincial government, with district and commune officials copied, back in January—but never heard back. Mr. Sareth said he only recently saw the notice.
Deputy provincial governor Nhem Sam Oeun said the notice was not enough, because it lacked certain details.
“Although he already informed provincial authorities, it is necessary to attach documents such as an explanation of the purpose of the session, the program and attendees,” he said.
“Some points about the session were deleted by the provincial government because they were probably inappropriate,” he added without elaborating.
Mr. Thy said he had been expecting between 80 and 100 people to attend the workshop, which would have addressed issues of human rights, indigenous rights, democracy and advocacy. He called the government’s reasons for shutting it down an excuse to intimidate and silence ethnic minority communities, which are engaged in a number of land disputes with powerful agri-business firms.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said he was aware of reports that the meeting had been stopped but declined to comment on the event or whether the government’s actions were legal.
“We think this is an important program and we’re going to work with our implementing partner and the government to move forward,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)