Seizure of Villagers’ Petition Sparks Alarm

Rights groups called the threatened closure of the Ratanakkiri-based Highlanders’ Association a threat to freedom of association on Thursday, while police confirmed that they confiscated a petition signed by hundreds of ethnic minority villagers against a land concession in the province’s O’Yadaw district. 

The Cambodian Human Rights Ac­­­­tion Committee said it was con­cer­n­­ed by the pressure being exer­­ted on the Highlanders’ As­so­cia­tion, which is under police in­ves­ti­gation for its alleged role in a peaceful de­monstration on March 4 against a proposed 20,000-hec­tare concession in O’Yadaw’s Ya­tung commune.

“This is a threat to freedom of as­so­ciation, a fundamental right en­shrined in the Cambodian Con­sti­tu­tion,” the coalition of 18 rights groups said in a statement.

“It’s disappointing to see pressure being put on a community-bas­ed or­ganization that advocates for indigenous minority rights,” ac­tion com­mit­tee Chairman Sok Sam Oeun said.

Ratanakkiri police began investi­ga­ting the association after hundreds of irate ethnic minority villa­gers turn­ed out to greet government officials and Men Sarun com­­pany representatives who visi­ted Yatung’s Ten village to assess the location of the mas­­­sive concession.

Chilled by the frosty reception, the officials retreated to the provincial ca­pital, Banlung.

Police have accused “instigators” of organizing the protest, while mem­bers of the High­land­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion say their group has done no­thing but educate villa­gers about their rights under the Land Law.

On Sunday, police confiscated a pe­­tition against the concession sign­ed by hundreds of residents in three villages in Yatung, O’Yadaw Gov­er­nor Heng Bunthan said. “By the evidence confiscated, they made the petition under the en­­cour­agement of masterminds. They are opposed to the government’s principle of land concession,” Heng Bun­than said.

Ratanakkiri police Deputy Chief Hor Ang said petitions can only be or­ganized with government assistance. “People with low understanding are vulnerable,” he said of the prov­ince’s minorities and to explain the confiscation.

Pen Bonnar, provincial coordi­na­tor for rights group Adhoc, de­fen­ded the intelligence of those signing the petition, noting that mi­nor­ity villa­gers are well aware of their rights.

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