Provincial authorities in Koh Kong province have barred a group of law students from conducting a two-day training course on human rights and democracy, citing a controversial law passed earlier this year.
Authorities claimed the students needed proper permission under a new law that regulates NGOs and associations—a law that many observers warned could be used to stymie basic rights.
One of the student organizers told VOA Khmer they had, in fact, asked permission from the provincial government to hold the training session, but were denied because they lacked the proper documentation.
The student, who gave his name as Kanharith, said they had submitted a form to authorities in Andoung Tek commune, to provide the course. That included Hy Tan, the commune chief.
“He said that we didn’t give a notice with a stamp proving where we had come from or which institution we work for,” the student said. “I told him that we didn’t break the law coming here because we have the right to share knowledge with the communities. I told him I am a volunteer youth, but he said absolutely that he would never allow us to start our training course.”
The student group has apparently run afoul of the Law on Associations and NGOs, which states: “local associations or non-governmental organizations that are not registered will not be permitted to conduct any activity in the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Kanharith said Hy Tan never cited the law to him. “When I explained the constitution or whatever, he didn’t listen.”
Asked about his decision, Hy Tan told VOA Khmer the request from the students did not come with a registration number, only a name and phone number. “Who signed this letter, and where did the letter come from?” he said, adding that he made the decision based on the NGO law.
“We have to use this law,” he said, adding that he feared the group had arrived in his commune to do harm. “I am very afraid of instigation in my local commune, because my commune never faces any problems,” he said.
The law on NGOs has received widespread criticism, for fear that it will restrict freedoms of assembly, speech and other rights. Am Sam Ath, chief of investigation for the rights group Licadho, said the use of the law to halt the work of the law students was “not acceptable.”
“It’s just a training course,” he said.