The Phnom Penh Municipal Hall has rejected a request by the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (Cita) to hold a rally demanding the release of Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy in order to improve Cambodia’s chances of retaining the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) agreement.
The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc) later released a statement expressing concern over the inroads being made into people’s right to demonstrate and the restrictions on freedom of expression.
On Tuesday, three Cita representatives submitted a letter to Phnom Penh governor Khuong Sreng giving notice of the rally, in which they expected more than 70 people to participate, that was scheduled to be held on August 15 in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Cita president Ouk Chhayavy, one of the people who submitted the letter to the municipal hall, told The Post on Wednesday that the rally was organised to demand the release of Sokha, the president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and a royal pardon for CNRP “acting president” Rainsy.
She said she was concerned about the likely loss of the EBA agreement as the government had not made any significant response to the EU’s concerns or the recommendations made by the UN and its International Labour Organisation.
“As a Cambodian who is concerned about the loss of EBA, I would like to request the government of Cambodia to reconsider and do whatever is necessary to maintain EBA.
“We must not allow these benefits to be lost, because this issue not only affects me but all citizens throughout the country. So we want Khmer and Khmer to forgive each other,” Chhayavy said.
Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun, who also submitted the letter, said that in mid-August the EU would conclude its report assessing Cambodia’s political status before deciding whether to withdraw or maintain the EBA agreement.
He said he was extremely concerned about the loss of the preferential trade agreement because it would lead to a loss of many benefits and seriously affect the textile and garment sector and impact the entire Cambodian economy.
“The government has not resolved the crisis in Cambodia since September 2017, when Sokha was arrested, and the subsequent dissolution of the CNRP, and that’s why the European Union and the US are condemning the Cambodian government. Please, the Cambodian government, restore full respect for human rights and democracy, release Kem Sokha and restore political rights to politicians,” Chhun said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Hall spokesman Meth Meas Pheakdey told The Post on Wednesday that permission for the rally had been refused because it would interfere with ongoing court processes.
Former CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua said: “They are perfectly within their rights [to hold the rally] and the authorities must respect their constitutional right to assemble, freedom of expression and freedom of speech.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said: “The rally is just a tool to echo a foreign group because the group carried out a campaign to ask buyers not to purchase goods from Cambodia. So don’t lie to citizens that they care about workers. That’s a very bad fabrication,” he said.
On Wednesday, rights group Adhoc expressed grave concern over restrictions on the right to demonstrate.
“In late 2018 and early 2019, the government, especially the Ministry of Interior, expressed its willingness to open free spaces so civil society organisations and local communities could hold rallies. There was a promise to establish an organised partnership between the government and civil society organisations.
“But the Association expresses deep concern over the restrictions, by police and authorities in several grassroots locations, on the right of civil society organisations, local communities and political party activists to rally,” Adhoc’s statement said.
Adhoc appealed to the government – especially the Ministry of Interior – to intervene and take strict measures against any officer who failed to respect Ministry of Interior policy by restricting people’s right to demonstrate and using threats against organisations, associations and local communities who organise rallies.