The provincial government in Koh Kong says authorities were within their rights to detain more than a dozen people and break up a demonstration over the arrest of three environmental activists.
Protesters have been pressuring the provincial government to release the activists, who had led a campaign to stop environmentally damaging sand dredging along the coast. Critics say the authorities there broke up a legal demonstration, violating the basic freedom of assembly.
In a statement Thursday, the office of the provincial government said the demonstrations were an act of “anarchy,” conducted without permission. Protesters had demanded the government intervene in the case of the three activists, from Mother Nature Cambodia, “which was outside the authority” of the government.
The statement defended a counter-protest of about 130 people, which clashed with the original demonstrators on Wednesday, saying they had permission to march in front of the provincial court.
Seventeen people, including journalists and rights workers, were detained in demonstrations Wednesday, but they were released later that evening after questioning. The three environmental activists—Sun Mala, 23, Try Sovikea, 24, and Sim Samnang, 26—remain in detention.
The Mother Nature activists had been leading a campaign against two companies, Direct Access and International Rainbow, which they said were dredging beyond what their licenses allow, damaging the environment. They were also opposed to a Chinese hydropower project in the province.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, said the protesters were legally assembled and are not required in such cases to seek permission from the government. The provincial government’s statement defending the crackdown, he said, was “an excuse to escape responsibility [and] an excuse for arresting human rights defenders.”