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City selects ‘freedom park’

MUNICIPAL officials have selected a site near Phnom Penh City Hall for the capital’s first “freedom park”, drawing criticism from some observers who say the move will do little to encourage free and open demonstrations.

Sok Penh Vuth, deputy governor of Daun Penh district, said officials had chosen a public park along Streets 106 and 108 to be designated as a demonstration zone. The zone is part of the government’s effort to enforce the new Law on Nonviolent Demonstrations, which critics have slammed for placing size limits on public protests.

Selecting the 50-by-210-metre area near Canadia Tower on Monivong Boulevard and the Spean Neak, or Dragon Bridge, serves multiple purposes, Sok Penh Vuth said.

“The reason our authorities decided to choose this area is because a lot of car vendors are parking along the garden, so we want them to move away,” he said. “And it is a place that is near City Hall, so it is easier for authorities to receive people who file complaints and also find resolutions for them.”

Sok Penh Vuth said officials began clearing land to build a garden area for the demonstration zone yesterday morning.

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong confirmed that city officials had selected the area to be a demonstration zone. The decision now awaits final approval from the Interior Ministry, he said.

The Law on Nonviolent Demonstrations calls for designated areas to be developed in municipalities nationwide.

It has drawn criticism from rights activists, who contend that some aspects of the legislation needlessly stifle rather than encourage nonviolent protests.

Critics were particularly concerned over an article that caps demonstrations at 200 people and demands that organisers obtain approval from authorities before holding them.

Chan Soveth, a senior monitor for the rights group Adhoc, reiterated those concerns yesterday.

“Authorities should give people the right to express themselves and also allow them to go anywhere they want to protest,” he said.

“Don’t put pressure on people by allowing them to protest only in one place.”

Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said the move to designate demonstration zones might be well-intentioned, but described it as poorly conceived.

“We demonstrate not because of freedom parks; we demonstrate because of real issues that people have,” he said.

“You can’t just draw these boundaries and say you have to get in there in order to protest. That defeats the whole purpose of public demonstrations.” He predicted that the demonstration zones may end up limiting free speech more than promoting it.

“It seems like they will make spontaneous protests illegal,” he said. “They don’t want spontaneous demonstrations, so they create these freedom parks where only a maximum of 200 protesters can congregate at one time.”

Although the designated freedom park is within walking distance of City Hall, it remains far from other institutions of power where people often protest, such as the National Assembly, said Yim Sovann, a lawmaker with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

“The place is too small. It’s not big enough for villagers to join together to protest,” he said.

“It seems the government is just trying to put pressure on villagers’ freedom of speech.”

Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, confirmed Wednesday that ministry officials had received the city’s request to construct the demonstration zone, but deferred comment on the issue to Sam Samoth, the head of the city’s garden office under the Ministry of Public Works and Transport.

Sam Samoth declined to comment yesterday, saying that he was busy in a meeting.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY IRWIN LOY

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