Dozens of police officers descended on a private meeting of hundreds of CNRP activists in Ratanakkiri province on Thursday to try to block an event at which party vice presidents Mu Sochua and Pol Ham were due to speak, according to an opposition official.
The CNRP went ahead with the gathering, which was held on the grounds of a home belonging to one of the activists, after police pulled back when they saw the number of people present.
As the district police chief on Thursday defended their actions, citing a law that bans campaigning until two weeks before the commune elections on June 4, organizers vehemently insisted that it was just a meeting of supporters.
Tim Phally, a member of the CNRP’s provincial executive committee, who organized the event, said that police and district authorities had first turned up at the site in Kon Mom district on Wednesday in an attempt to remove a tent that was being erected for the get-together with Ms. Sochua and Mr. Ham.
“District authorities threatened that if we did not ask permission, they would order forces to take action,” Mr. Phally said.
“They said if we did not listen to them, they would order the forces to remove the tent. At that time, there was a lot of tension between the authorities and us,” he added.
Despite believing that the party was not legally required to request permission to hold a meeting, Mr. Phally said CNRP officials submitted a letter in the evening asking the district governor for consent anyway.
Authorities usually need to be notified of gatherings at private homes, for events such as weddings, but don’t need to grant permission for them.
The organizers said that they had notified commune officials well in advance of the meeting.
On Thursday morning, however, dozens of police officers returned to the site. But they swiftly retreated upon witnessing hundreds of opposition supporters inside and outside the tent, he said. Only four were left to monitor the event.
“After the police saw hundreds of people had come and our leaders were not afraid, the situation seemed to calm down,” he said.
Ms. Sochua and Mr. Ham—who have both been elected as vice presidents of the opposition, although the government has yet to recognize them—then delivered speeches, he added.
Contacted after the event, Mr. Ham said he “heard there was trouble,” but couldn’t comment as he arrived after it had died down.
Mr. Phally said the authorities’ behavior was a clear attempt at intimidating the opposition before next month’s commune elections.
“We are not doing an election campaign. We just had a meeting with our activists,” he said.
“Actually, it’s intimidation. They use power rather than implementing the law.”
District police chief Phok Borith confirmed that officers were sent to the site to “question” organizers about whether they had permission. The election law states that parties are only allowed to campaign two weeks before an election.
“Based on the principle, the election campaign hasn’t started yet,” he said.
“They must ask for permission from provincial and district authorities to provide safety for them,” he said, adding that he was concerned that “bad people” might throw rocks at speakers.
When asked what law the opposition was breaking by holding a meeting, deputy provincial governor Nhem Sam Oeun said permission should have been sought out of “principle.”
“It’s a principle because in the past, when an incident happened at the event, the people often blamed us,” he said.
The incident comes a day after a city police chief in Koh Kong province admitted that there was no law justifying the actions of police officers who ripped down banners urging the release of detained rights workers, but said the NGOs that had put them up needed to have asked for permission.