Basic freedoms of assembly and expression in Cambodia are “shrinking”, risking undermining decades of progress, a rights group said yesterday, as it called on the government to dedicate more time to meet and debate with civil society organisations.
In its report, The Right to Remain Silenced: Expressive Rights in the Kingdom of Cambodia, Adhoc says the government is “hostile to freedoms of expression and assembly as these freedoms provide the legal basis to expose rights abuses and those behind them and to protest when they occur.”
This hostility shows that the government has “chosen to ignore” human rights standards, it adds.
At a press conference yesterday, Adhoc director Ny Chakrya called the government “weak” for “implementing laws which are in stark contrast to its legal obligations”.
Chakrya said that despite relative calm in the run-up and immediate wake of last year’s election, freedom of expression “plummeted to zero” at the beginning of 2014, when violent government crackdowns on demonstrations killed at least five.
In the months after January’s violence, protests were forcefully dispersed, a ban on gatherings was introduced, journalists were targeted, and Freedom Park, the capital’s designated protest space, was shut.
Officials had previously said the reopening of the park was dependent on the closure of government investigations into the fatal violence of early January and other clashes, but as it opened earlier this month, any results remained elusive.
In its report, Adhoc calls on the government to pay heed to its own laws.
“Freedom of expression, a free press and the freedom of peaceful assembly must be protected” if the government is sincere in its commitment to human rights, it says.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator at Adhoc, called on the government to meet with civil society groups twice a year to peacefully debate the issues.
“If the culture of debate is not created, mistrust still exists, freedom is restricted and impunity will continue,” he said.
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said that greater communication with civil society organisations would be a step forward.
“It is good. We should have a debate forum to share information to catch up with democratic countries,” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan agreed, adding that the government has never stood in the way of such meetings.
“I welcome this, it opens a new era in Cambodia,” he said.
But Siphan added that the government’s crackdowns have been a necessary measure to protect public order as well as the law.
“We don’t want our country to turn into the Middle East,” he said.