More than 1,500 villagers plan to march to the Anti-Corruption Unit and National Assembly in Phnom Penh on Thursday in defiance of a fresh ban issued by City Hall prohibiting them from doing so.
The villagers form a group known as the Land Communities for Peace and say they want to file petitions with both bodies to bring attention to rampant deforestation, land disputes and issues related to the granting of social land concessions.
Representatives met in Phnom Penh with municipal deputy governor Khuong Sreng on Monday to inform him of their plans.
Mr. Sreng then released a notice saying that City Hall “cannot allow gatherings at Freedom Park and a march to the National Assembly and Anti-Corruption Unit to avoid harming security, safety and public order, especially traffic congestion along the streets.”
Instead, Mr. Sreng called on the villagers to send seven representatives to City Hall so that municipal officials can assist them in filing the petitions. But villager Seng Sokheng, who lives in Oddar Meanchey province, said the marches will go on as planned.
“We need to exercise our freedom to mobilize and speak out—we need our voices to be heard by the government leaders, since there are a lot of powerful officials and rich people who have been involved in corrupt practices through deforestation, housing abuses as well as land grabbing,” Mr. Sokheng said.
Mr. Sokheng added that there are now concerns that the march will be met with violence from authorities—a response that has been common since the government banned public assembly in January.
“We know that we will be attacked since the municipality has banned us,” he said. “But we cannot bear any more suffering, losing our houses, land, forests and natural resources.”
Chan Soveth, senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, said the government had taken a step back with regard to people’s rights.
“People who are the victims of any kinds of abuses want their voices heard and they want to show the leaders by doing a peaceful protest to demand something,” he said. “But they cannot do it, so it is not a democratic practice. Instead, it’s a dictatorship.”