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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Freedom-of-expression march censored

Freedom-of-expression march censored


Apromise from the Phnom Penh municipality to allow peaceful protests in the

future has been cautiously received by demonstration organizers who have

suffered violent crackdowns from police in the past.

Marching in the first government-approved street rally since the anti-Thai riots in January 2003, Dr Lao Mong Hay (left) joins Dr Kek Galabru (right) to protest continuing government suppression of political demonstrations. In symbolic solidarity, many demonstrators on Dec 6 wore mouth muzzles, alluding to government silencing of public opinion. (See story on page 6.)

"It's a step

forward if they mean what they say," said Ung Bun Ang, spokesman for the

opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), who also spoke about a "new spirit in town to

encourage the government to do what they say they're going to do."

The

SRP was one of 35 cases of crackdowns on demonstrations publicized in a December

6 street march from Wat Botum to Wat Phnom, organized by the Cambodian Human

Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a coalition of 18 local NGOs.

While the

freedom of expression march was itself subjected to police censorship pressure,

officials at the Phnom Penh municipality seemed afterwards to soften their

stance on allowing peaceful demonstrations.

"The municipality will allow

protests in the future because our country has peace now," said Mann Chhoeun,

chief of cabinet at the Phnom Penh municipality.

Chhoeun and municipal

governor Kep Chuktema authorized a December 9 celebration of International

Anti-corruption Day at Wat Botum park, organized by the Center for Social

Development.

An armed police officer stands guard as demonstrators march through the lawns of Wat Phnom. The December 6 protest was the first allowed by the government since the anti-Thai riots of January 2003, when thousands of angry protestors blew a fuse, took to the Phnom Penh streets and rained destruction on Thai-owned properties, restaurants and businesses.

Chhoeun said that while permission for protests had been

given in the past, "sometimes the municipality wants to keep the security and

social order" under control.

In a statement issued after the march,

CHRAC said authorities had "grossly manipulated" threats to civil order as an

excuse to control protests since the anti-Thai riots in January 2003.

The Phnom Penh municipality has repeatedly denied permission to hold

protests and marches, citing a 1991 Law on Demonstrations which gives

authorities the right to ban demonstrations "with characteristics conducive to

causing turmoil".

Among the requests denied was a "pilgrimage of peace"

march through Phnom Penh planned by ten monks in May 2003 and an NGO parade to

celebrate World Environment Day.

The CHRAC protest was held just prior to

the opening of the donor-government Consultative Group (CG) meeting and was

given rare authorization by the municipality.

However, the night before

the event, organizers were summonsed by Suon Rindy, deputy chief of cabinet at

the Phnom Penh municipality, who said the 35 banners documenting previous

crackdowns would be banned.

Other banners promoting rule of law, good

governance, increased livelihoods and curbing corruption were permitted, despite

the organizer's claims that authorities have no right to dictate the content of

banners under Cambodian law.

Wearing face masks with crosses over the

mouth to symbolize the lack of freedom of expression, the marchers carried the

35 banners rolled up during the march and refused three police requests to

remove them enroute.

"Even though we have authorization from the Phnom

Penh municipality and the Ministry of Interior, you see one more example where

we are censored and not allowed to express concerns," said Naly Pilorge,

director of Licadho.

As delegates to the CG meeting drove past Wat

Phnom, organizers negotiated with police and municipality officials to unfurl

the 35 banners for around 15 minutes, ending at 9:00 a.m. as specified in the

written authorization.

Kek Galabru, president of Licadho and chairperson

of CHRAC, praised the authorities for being "very tolerant" at the time, but

later released a statement calling the restrictions on the banners

"unconstitutional and an abuse of power."

Licadho sent the 35 banners in

question to media and CG delegates to reinforce the point.

The

municipality's apparent change in policy will be tested by the Khmer Front

Party, who lodged a request on December 15 to hold a gathering at the National

Assembly on January 7, the anniversary of the Vietnamese-led ousting of the

Khmer Rouge in 1979.

The Cambodian People's Party traditionally

celebrates the day at their headquarters but the KFP wants to present an

alternative event that is more critical of Vietnam's role.

Un

Sokunmealea, deputy president of the Khmer Front Party (KFP), doubted the

municipality would allow more protests, saying permission for the CHRAC march

was only given to impress the international community as the CG meeting got

under way.

The KFP has been denied permission to protest at least ten

times in the past two years on issues ranging from land issues, illegal

immigrants, workers' rights and the high price of petrol, said Sokunmealea.

When the KFP attempted to gather in front of the National Assembly on

January 7 this year, more than 100 police, military police and 'flying tiger'

motorcycle police disbanded the unauthorized demonstration.

Four people

were arrested and forced then to sign pledges not to protest again, with police

later blocking off the street outside the KFP headquarters and threatening

members who ventured outside.

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