Photo by: Sovan Philong
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema leads a group of officials in a walk through Freedom Park after cutting the ribbon during its official inauguration.
About 1,000 people attended the opening ceremony for Phnom Penh’s controversial “Freedom Park” – five times more than would be allowed to gather in the park for a single rally under the Kingdom’s new demonstration law.
The Law on Peaceful Demonstration, passed last year, calls on all provinces and the capital to set aside an area for public gatherings in order to “ensure freedom of expression of Khmer citizens through peaceful assembly”. Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park opened in Daun Penh district, near Wat Phnom.
Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema hailed the 1.2-hectare park as a sign of Cambodia’s democratic progress.
“During the Pol Pot regime, we could not protest and Phnom Penh turned into a ghost city, but now we have a Freedom Park”, he said.
“I would like to appeal to all Cambodian people in all provinces to gather in the parks for demonstrations. If protesters go to another area, we will have to take measures to ensure public order.”
According to the demonstration law, those wishing to gather on public property must file a request with the appropriate government authorities at least five days in advance, cite their purpose and include photocopies of national ID cards and home addresses for three representatives.
At “freedom parks”, as well as on private- or collectively-owned property, demonstrators may apply for a permit with the government just 12 hours in advance, or 36 hours in advance if they plan to gather on a weekend or holiday.
Demonstrations under these circumstances are limited to 200 people and allowed only between 6am and 6pm.
Police are not permitted to break up any approved gathering unless it turns violent.
Phnom Penh Municipal police chief Touch Naruth said local authorities would ensure that protesters without the documentation to hold rallies elsewhere would be moved to the Freedom Park.
“We will not take violent measures against the protesters if they go to another site. We will educate them and bring them back to the Freedom Park,” Touch Naruth said.
The demonstration law does not apply to rallies related to labour disputes and elections, nor to those organised “for the purpose of serving religion, art, culture, national customs and tradition, and educational dissemination activities for social interests”.
Nevertheless, the park is located away from major government buildings as well as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s home in Phnom Penh. Of the 17 protests broken up by police in the capital this year, 11 took place outside Hun Sen’s Sihanouk Boulevard home, according to local rights group Adhoc.
“There is no country in the world that has perfect democracy, but the park here shows the development of democracy in Cambodia,” Kep Chuktema said. “It is not like democracy in Europe.”
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said he hoped the space would promote civic discourse, but that he held reservations about it nonetheless.
“If freedom is being regulated, then it is not freedom at all,” he said. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THOMAS MILLER