GOVERNMENT and opposition parliamentarians engaged in heated exchanges Wednesday as the National Assembly opened its debate into a proposed Law on Nonviolent Demonstrations, which critics said could severely curtail freedom of expression throughout the country.
Although Article 2 of the draft law guarantees the people’s freedom of expression through peaceful demonstrations, the same article states that demonstrators must not use these rights to abuse other people’s freedom and reputations, negatively affect the traditions of the nation, or affect public order and national security.
“I do not support this law and its enforcement as long as its definitions remain unclear,” Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann told the assembly.
During the debate, opposition lawmakers drew particular attention to Article 14, which restricts legal public gatherings to fewer than 200 people without at least 12 hours’ advance permission from authorities.
Yim Sovann rejected the limit on the number of people who could legally participate in peaceful demonstrations under the new law.
“This law allows only 200 people to gather.… We requested that the number be increased much higher than this,” he added.
“We cannot limit the number of participants or vehicles who can take part in demonstrations, so we are asking to amend [the law].”
Unionists and rights activists also targeted Article 14 of the law, saying the restriction on the size of public gatherings would affect the rights of the people to protest obvious injustices.
“[Government] should not limit participants’ numbers because in demonstration there are always many participants, and if they cannot participate, they will be disappointed,” said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc.
Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said that if 5,000 workers were cheated by a factory owner, protesting under the new restrictions would not be representative.
Khuon Sudary, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said the Demonstration Law has existed in draft form since 2005, and that it adheres to both national and international legal standards.
She said Prime Minister Hun Sen had already changed some articles of the law to conform to the recommendations of the assembly’s special commissions, who discussed the law with the relevant institutions.
She also defended the restriction on the number of people attending public protests, saying just 12 hours’ notice is required to gain permission for holding a demonstration of more than 200 people.
“If [they] want to hold a demonstration, let it happen. In 12 hours we can approve it,” she said, adding that people would continue to enjoy freedom of expression in public, and that authorities would help to arrange it for them.
Although there is currently no law regulating large public gatherings, Phnom Penh municipal authorities have repeatedly denied permission to hold protests and marches in the capital, citing a 1991 law on demonstrations that gives authorities the right to ban any protest “with characteristics conducive to causing turmoil”.
Among the denied requests was a “peace march” through Phnom Penh planned by 10 monks in May 2003 and other parades and protests organised by NGOs in recent years.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Human Rights Party demanded amendments to Articles 2, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14 and 20 in the draft Demonstration Law.
Also Wednesday, the Assembly passed the final articles of a new law outlawing the possession or use of chemical and nuclear weapons.