Protesters in Phnom Penh yesterday continued to enjoy liberties rediscovered since political reconciliation between the ruling and opposition parties saw the barricades around Freedom Park – which had been the epicentre of opposition-led demonstrations – taken down last week.
The second demonstration held at the park in as many days saw a few hundred people and union representatives gather for International Youth Day in the morning and subsequently march unhindered to the National Assembly bearing petitions voicing youth concerns on a number of issues.
No Daun Penh district security guards – the chosen enforcers during the past year of political strife – were in sight.
At the same time, across town, hundreds of fired-up demonstrators demanding an apology from Vietnam for controversial comments made by an embassy spokesman about the former Kampuchea Krom provinces gathered outside the embassy for the second day in a row.
In a provocative move, a small group burned two Vietnamese flags before being told off by protest organisers, but police took no action.
On Monday, these protesters were the first to use Freedom Park as a demonstration space since its reopening and were not blocked by authorities when they marched en masse through town.
They have pledged to continue protesting until embassy spokesman Trung Van Thong apologises for saying in June that the land once known as Kampuchea Krom belonged to Vietnam long before it was officially handed over by colonial power France in 1949.
Am Sam Ath, technical adviser at human rights group Licadho, welcomed the relaxation by Phnom Penh authorities of their tough stance on public assembly since Freedom Park had been reopened.
“It is the second day that Freedom Park has been reopened and people and youth [have marched]. We observe that nothing happened. If no ban is made, no violence happens either. This is the kind of democracy we want,” he said.
Phnom Penh deputy police chief Choun Narin said police stood by yesterday because youth day marchers had kept “public order”.
While streets had been blocked around the Vietnamese Embassy and more than 100 members of the security forces deployed, Narin said they were just fulfilling the government’s duty to protect the embassy.
“We have to remember that if something happens, it is the government’s job to take responsibility. So we have to prevent it rather than letting it happen,” he said.
Ramana Sorn of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said that while the reopening of Freedom Park should be commended, it was “much too early to say” whether this signalled an improvement in the situation of freedom of expression and assembly.
“There have only been two protests since the park has been reopened. And as we have seen in the past, there have been periods of relative freedom with regards to the rights of assembly and expression, which have been followed by yet more crackdowns,” she said.