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.