Commune authorities in Pursat province allegedly barred a celebration in the lead up to the United Nations’ Human Rights Day on Sunday, according to environmental activist Kuch Veng, the event’s would-be organizer.
“They don’t want me to hold an anniversary because they are afraid of us understanding our rights and they are afraid their reputations will be affected for having failed to respect human rights issues,” said Veng, 58.
Veng, 58, said commune authorities, police and security guards blocked the gate of Ratanak Raingsei pagoda in Krakor district’s Kbal Trach commune, where he had planned to hold a celebratory event in commemoration of the 76th anniversary of Human Rights Day on December 10.
Veng said he had planned to celebrate the anniversary early because he would be harvesting his rice paddy the following week. After being barred from the pagoda, the approximately 40 participants held the event at a community member’s home.
Met Samol, Kbal Trach commune deputy commune chief, said the commune had not banned Veng from holding an event related to Human Rights Day. She said the commune asked Veng to first gain approval from district authorities.
“We have asked him to get permission from the district governor, but he didn’t go,” she said. “The commune level is low and officials dare not give permission.”
Another Kbal Trach commune resident, Loun Sivy, who planned to attend the event, said getting approval from district authorities was unnecessary.
“We are saddened that authorities prevented us from holding a human rights celebration [at the pagoda], it seemed like authorities discriminate against us,” she said. “We have done nothing wrong, and we have already informed the commune authorities, we do not need permission from district officials.”
Krakor district governor Liv Senghim and the Ratanak Raingsei pagoda chief monk could not be reached for comment.
Nguon Sarun, a commune clerk, said that the district authorities instructed Veng to invite commune officials to attend any events related to Human Rights Day but complained they had not been invited.
“If he [Veng] holds an event, please allow commune officials to join because we are the parents of the villagers,” he said.
Sarun said the commune had also requested all the event participants identify themselves in advance of the event but Veng had failed to provide this information.
“He [Veng] has a stubborn character and refused [to invite] commune officials to attend the event,” Sarun said. “He doesn’t cooperate well with the commune.”
Am Sam Ath, operations director for human rights group Licadho, said he was disappointed local authorities prohibited a community from holding a celebration of international human rights.
“The prevention does not show a good image and threatens and restricts the freedom of the community,” he said.
He added Cambodia had made no progress on improving human rights this year, even as international observers and national human rights groups called on the government to restore democratic norms and civic freedoms.
Katta Orn, spokesperson for the government-run Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said the Pursat authorities’ actions were justified because the event’s organizers had allegedly not followed proper protocol.
“The prevention does not mean to restrict citizens’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly,” he said. “The community had not correctly requested [the event].”
Chak Sopheap, executive director at the NGO Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the Pursat authorities violated the fundamental right to freedom of assembly enshrined in the Cambodian Constitution.“The authorities are reminded that citizens are not required to request the authorities’ permission, but only to notify them of assemblies,” she said. “Critical voices continue to face intimidation, threats, judicial harassment, and sometimes physical attacks for expressing their opinions both offline and online.”