Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday warned that any future demonstrations by the opposition party would be matched with pro-government protests by ruling party supporters who have “equal rights” to do so, suggesting the current ban on public assembly may soon be lifted.
A government spokesman later said a lifting of the ban – imposed in the wake of a violent crackdown on protesting garment workers last month – was the “will” of the premier, though it would be up to relevant authorities to decide whether that happens.
“Now there will be two demonstrations. [Our] supporters have the right to do so and so do the opposition.… If they gather, so do we,” Hun Sen said at the inauguration of a coal power plant in Preah Sihanouk province yesterday morning.
The premier added he had “heard [the CNRP] will apply soon [for permission] to hold a demonstration”.
“If you apply for a demonstration, we will follow suit. If [you are] allowed, both will be [allowed]. If you are not [allowed], both won’t be. We don’t want to allow only one side to do it like in the past [before] we banned them,” he said.
“For myself, I am not calling for [demonstrations], but I just give equal rights.”
To illustrate his point, Hun Sen said that authorities might have to erect a wall in the middle of Freedom Park – the capital’s designated protest space, which was violently cleared of opposition demonstrators on January 4 – so each party could protest simultaneously.
“So we have to be prepared, whether it is a brick wall or a barbed-wire [fence],” he said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said it would be up to the authorities administering the ban whether to lift it in response to the premier’s words.
“He raised that issue so that the Ministry of Interior and City Hall might change that policy.’
Hun Sen’s comments come less than a week after Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy said his party would call off ongoing negotiations with the CPP if it continued to deploy security forces and its supporters to the vicinity of CNRP public gatherings – as happened on a few occasions in the past month.
On January 20, Hun Sen called on his supporters to be prepared “to fight” back against the opposition’s anti-government protests.
The first meeting of a bipartisan committee that was formed last week and is tasked with researching electoral reforms is set for tomorrow.
Senior opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said yesterday that he was not aware of any requests from his party to hold demonstrations, as alleged by Hun Sen.
“The lifting of the ban on demonstrations would be a good way to create a better environment for talks between the two parties.… But I don’t think we are looking for any more demonstrations in the near future,” he said.
He added that only communist government leaders would directly call for counter-demonstrations against the political opposition.
“No democratic nations have the prime minister organising a demonstration … only the Soviet Union has done that.”
CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha added that, although political parties have equal rights to demonstrate peacefully, they should do so at different places and at different times.
“Previously, the CPP is always provoking [us]. When they know where we are gathering, they go there too. That is negative and intentional provocation,” he said.
Kem Ley, a political analyst, said that Hun Sen had no choice but to lift the ban given widespread condemnation from the international community.
“[But] if he allows the CNRP to organise further demonstrations, it means more people, maybe 500,000 or a million, will come. That’s why he wants to use the CPP people power to frustrate or confront the CNRP instead of using the armed forces.”
Both the Phnom Penh municipality and the Interior Ministry announced bans on public assembly after at least four people were killed during protests in early January.
The bans have been sporadically, but at times violently, enforced.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche could not be reached for comment yesterday, while Khieu Sopheak, spokesman at the Interior Ministry, said he could not comment in detail on the prime minister’s speech.
“We follow the premier’s orders, and we do not follow the opposition,” he said.