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."
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.