A group of about 100 villagers on their way to a Christian retreat in Sihanoukville were prevented from leaving their commune in Svay Rieng province Wednesday, drawing criticism from rights workers that their right to move freely had been abused.
The group was traveling in four separate buses along a road in Svay Rieng’s Kompong Trach commune when authorities stopped the vehicles and informed the villagers they did not have the proper paperwork to travel the roughly 375 km to Preah Sihanouk province for a month-long religious gathering, said Nuth Bopinnaroth, provincial coordinator for rights group Licadho.
“The local authorities…banned the villagers from leaving the commune due to fears that the villagers would take part in the mass demonstration held by the Cambodia National Rescue Party,” he said. “But they have the right to take part because the opposition party announced already that it would be a nonviolent demonstration.”
Te Vanny, a representative of the villagers, said that the group was very surprised police had asked them for permission to leave the commune.
“The authorities said that we didn’t ask for permission,” he said. “Actually, we don’t have to ask for permission. Perhaps they fear that we will cause problems if we join the demonstration.”
He said the group had no plans to attend Saturday’s opposition rally against election results and had asked for permission from Preah Sihanouk authorities to pitch tents in Sihanoukville from September 5 to October 4 for a month-long Christian retreat.
“We left the commune not to join the demonstration, but for the dissemination of Jesus’ messages,” said Mr. Vanny.
Svay Rieng Kompong Trach commune chief Kong Thuon said the group’s freedom of movement had not been inhibited, but that authorities had stopped the group as they appeared to conducting a parade through the street.
“They went on a parade, so the authorities had to observe and investigate them to see if permission was granted to travel in a parade,” said Mr. Thuon. “We are not afraid that they will join the [CNRP] demonstration, but they need to ask permission from the authorities beforehand if they want to do something.”
Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho, said Wednesday that the authorities had no right to stop the group.
“We are very disappointed that the government and local authorities are restricting ordinary Cambodians from moving around their own country. Cambodia is supposed to be a free and democratic country, not a country where the most basic rights of movement, assembly and expression are restricted,” she said.