A Ratanakkiri province court official said on Tuesday that he wants authorities to stop an Adhoc human rights worker from disseminating excerpts of a speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen to indigenous minority villagers, claiming it could incite civil unrest.
Judge Thor Saron, deputy director of the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court, said that Adhoc’s distribution of parts of the premier’s speech could lead to “social instability and villager uprisings.”
“I will tell the authorities to reach a compromise with the NGO not to incite the villagers,” the judge said by telephone on Tuesday, adding that he has already spoken with Deputy Provincial Governor Mam Saroeun about the issue.
“NGOs are always trying to create big problems between villagers and the authority in order to gain their own interest-getting funds from donors,” Judge Thor Saron said. He claimed that Adhoc regularly tries to pit villagers against the government by filing complaints about perfectly legal land transactions in the province.
“If the NGO incites the villagers and [the villagers] commit any crime, that NGO will face charges,” he continued.
Pen Bonnar, Adhoc’s provincial coordinator, said he distributed excerpts of the prime minister’s April 9 speech, in which, according to Adhoc, the premier said that local officials should not get involved in the sale of forested state land in Ratanakkiri province and should resist pressure from high-level government officials to authorize these land deals. He also said that the courts should pursue more cases of illegal forestland sales.
Explaining his reason for distributing the prime minister’s statement, Mr Pen Bonnar said that media outlets in Ratanakkiri are limited and that authorities are not willing to make villagers aware of information about land issues, especially when it concerns forests, he said. Keeping the information from the villagers also keeps them ignorant of the land crimes committed by local authorities, Mr Pen Bonnar added.
“Villagers benefit from knowing about government responsibility, but the local authorities do not benefit, so they do not follow the prime minister’s speech,” he added.
But Judge Thor Saron claimed that Adhoc had taken pieces of the Prime Minister’s speech out of context, and that it could therefore be used as a tool to confuse and incite villagers.
The judge also said that the prime minister’s statements specified that local leaders must stop authorizing sales of forestland, but he did not say that previous land deals are now illegitimate.
Mr Hun Sen only spoke about blocking local authorities from sales of land under the protection of the Forestry Administration, the judge added. “Local authorities have the right to sell the farmland abandoned by the ethnic groups.”
However, Ratanakkiri Deputy Governor Chey Sayoeurn said he welcomed Adhoc’s efforts to make the villagers aware of the premier’s statements involving forestland. He said he also supported villagers who file complaints with the court over land disputes in order to protect their communities.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith wrote in an e-mail Monday that the prime minister’s comments cited by Adhoc were accurate. But he added on Tuesday that parts of Mr Hun Sen’s speech might be used out of context, and could be misinterpreted due to the high rate of illiteracy in Ratanakkiri province.
The minister went on to say that “it is no good at all” to try and stop the distribution of the speech, and that it would be best that the “competent authority goes there and explains in detail what the message means and what its implications are.”
(Additional reporting by Paul Vrieze and Christi Hang)