Ratanakkiri province police on Wednesday used fire trucks and water hoses to disperse a peaceful march organized to highlight rampant forest and land crimes in the province, officials and a rights worker said.
Provincial authorities had promised Tuesday to disrupt the march, billed as a show of support for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s calls to end illegal logging and land grabbing, saying it could attract violence.
March organizer Pen Bonnar, provincial coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, said that he and 160 villagers and rights workers began their demonstration at 8 am but were greeted after only 10 meters by a high-pressure blast of water from one of two fire engines.
Rights groups accused the government of silencing a legitimate protest, however national and provincial authorities said the march was unauthorized and had been legally suppressed.
No arrests were made, but accounts differed Wednesday as to how and why Pen Bonnar ended up being interviewed at the Ratanakkiri provincial courthouse.
Pen Bonnar said that as the confrontation occurred he called for an end to the march out of fears for the safety of the marchers.
“We all got wet,” Pen Bonnar said, adding that the fire hose had been aimed primarily at himself. About 40 police at the scene confiscated handwritten banners supporting Hun Sen’s calls for an end to the illicit timber trade, he said.
“Local authorities are against Samdech Akkar Maha Senapadei Dekchor Hun Sen,” said Pen Bonnar, referring to the premier by the honorific title recently bestowed on him by King Norodom Sihamoni.
“We marched in support [of the premier] but they cracked down,” Pen Bonnar said, adding that following the march he had been questioned by provincial prosecutor Mey Sokhan for 10 minutes.
“Police invited me into the police car to meet the prosecutor,” he said, adding that he explained at the court that he had notified authorities of the planned march in November.
“I would have been detained if [the protest] was against the authorities and the government,” he added.
Deputy provincial police chief Kham Vann said he had broken up the march under orders from provincial authorities and that Mey Sokhan had invited Pen Bonnar to the court for questioning.
“There was nothing remarkable,” Kham Vann said. “We sent two water trucks and used only one,” he said. “We used only about 100 to 200 liters of water,” he added.
Mey Sokhan, however, denied that he had invited Pen Bonnar for questioning, saying instead that Pen Bonnar had actively sought to explain himself to the court.
“I didn’t invite him to come,” Mey Sokhan said. “When they broke [the marchers] up, he asked to meet me because he was afraid I would order him arrested.”
Mey Sokhan said all gatherings of more than four people in Cambodia required official authorization.
Adhoc President Thun Saray said that the authorities had violated fundamental rights as protected by the constitution.
“The constitution states clearly that there are rights to free expression and to hold demonstrations,” he said.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections also released a statement late Wednesday accusing police of surrounding Adhoc’s provincial office, illegally searching an activist’s home and of seeking “to muzzle the freedoms of expression and assembly.”
Provincial police could not be subsequently contacted to respond.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said that if they fear unrest, authorities have the right to stop a demonstration, even if it is in support of the prime minister.
The 1991 law on demonstration currently in effect says fears for security are grounds for denying permission to hold protests and that unauthorized marchers can be dispersed “with the use of equipment that does not endanger life.”
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, chairman of the National Assembly commission on the interior, said that under a draft law now before his commission such denials against a peaceful protest would only be permissible in the presence of specific threats.
In general, constitutional guarantees of free speech should prevail, he said.
“There is no need to ask for permission. Authorities must be responsible for keeping order for the demonstrators to hold it smoothly,” Yim Sovann said.