The stage is set for a potentially violent confrontation today as opposition leaders and union representatives are vowing to carry out planned marches, while government officials and authorities loyal to the ruling party are making it very clear they intend to use force if necessary to contain the groups.
Razor-wire fences and barricades blocked all entrances to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park yesterday morning, marking the return of a citywide ban on assembly that authorities say will take effect today, on International Labour Day, and last the entirety of the council election campaign period, which kicks off on Friday.
An announcement released on the Phnom Penh Municipality website on Tuesday evening says Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong informed officials from all nine districts of the capital in a meeting that public assembly will be completely banned in the city from today until the end of the campaign on May 16.
“From May 1, all gatherings on the street or at public places will be prohibited, except at [party] headquarters and private locations,” Socheatvong is quoted as saying in the statement.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party began daily rallies at Freedom Park in December. Those rallies came to an abrupt end on January 4 when authorities, turning their attention from violently quelled union protests the two proceeding days, drove opposition supporters out and banned all public assembly.
While the general ban was lifted in February, it remained in place in the park, the capital’s designated protest area. But the latest decision marks a return to the blanket ban on gatherings across the capital.
Last Labour Day, as in numerous years before, thousands of workers marched in routes throughout the capital, rallying for better pay and work conditions. But in a letter sent yesterday to union leaders, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Khoung Sreng said City Hall would not grant a request for gatherings in the park because the area is “still under investigation” over deadly violence in early January.
“The confederations, unions and associations can organise Labour Day at [their own] offices or a private place without marching,” he said.
He added that “cooperation with authorities” was vital to ensure the day ran “smoothly”.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche told the Post yesterday that the “authorities will strongly take action against those [union leaders] who still abuse the ban”.
But representatives of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union (C.CAWDU), Cambodia’s largest independent garment worker union, said its members would be out in force today.
“They’re going to come even if the government and police aren’t going to allow them,” said Sun Lyhov, assistant to C.CAWDU leader Ath Thorn.
Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW), last night said he and other union leaders had agreed to meet in front of the National Assembly to hold the May Day demonstration.
As of Friday, City Hall said, it will take further measures to enforce the ban.
In order to “strengthen security and public order”, 500 police and military police will be deployed in every district from Friday – the start of the election campaign – onwards, including the election date of May 18, Socheatvong told officials.
In a letter to the Phnom Penh Provincial Election Commission yesterday, the governor also warned that authorities would arrest anyone who defied or insulted authorities during the campaign.
Aside from not being allowed to rally or march along public roads in Phnom Penh, Socheatvong also told political parties to seek permission from authorities before putting up election propaganda in public places.
“A big election campaign is not appropriate to the current situation,” he said.
He also warned that election rallies had been used in the past as a cover for “demonstrations”.
But despite the announcements, Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yim Sovann said his party would hold rallies during the campaign, including a march in the city on Friday, which he expects will draw at least 10,000 supporters.
“What we have planned to do is legal. The ban made by the municipality authority violates the law of the election. So we do not respect this decision made by the municipality,” he said. “According to the law of election made by the NEC, we have the right to conduct the peaceful campaign through the country … We must proceed with what we have planned … We will gather and march throughout the city.”
Sovann added that the march would be led by CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who arrived back in Cambodia from Europe yesterday, and his deputy, Kem Sokha.
Speaking to supporters near Freedom Park yesterday morning, Rainsy said: “On International Labour Day … and on the first day of the council election campaign, we will come back again in order to take back Freedom Park in the public interest.”
His announcement came shortly after CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua, who has been on a campaign to bring “freedom back to Freedom Park” since the beginning of April, failed to break through the wall of razor wire and shields that surrounded the area.
Speaking to a crowd of about 40 supporters, NGO workers and journalists, Sochua said the anti-riot police guarding the area were breaking the law.
“[The law states] that each city must create [a] Freedom Park where people can come and demonstrate peacefully and express their freedom of expression peacefully, receive information peacefully and assemble peacefully,” she said. “We are using the law to protect our human rights, our freedom of expression. This is the truth.”
The ban was condemned in a statement released last night by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
CCHR “strongly condemns the reiteration of the ban on assemblies in Phnom Penh and urges security forces to refrain from using excessive violence against protesters,” it read.
Ou Virak, CCHR chairman, said the government’s “blanket ban on [gatherings] should only be in place in a state of emergency”.
“I think the government will do the best they can to prevent or threaten. But I think, yes, a violent crackdown is [more likely] now.”
Following yesterday’s blockade, senior Licadho official Am Sam Ath said “right now, Freedom Park is becoming Prison Park”, adding that the action taken by authorities is a violation of people’s legal right to freedom of assembly.
But Sochua said that she and the “nearly 200” youths who supported her at the park yesterday “will not be deterred”.
With plans to address issues in the garment sector, including calls for a monthly minimum wage of $160, Sochua said she expected a larger turnout for International Labour Day.
Sochua and CNRP leaders Rainsy and Sokha, along with more than 100 workers, were due to offer prayers for the people killed in the January 3 clash on Veng Sreng Boulevard in a ceremony early this morning.
REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, MEAS SOKCHEA, ALICE CUDDY, MOM KUNTHEAR, KEVIN PONNIAH, CHHAY CHANNYDA AND SEAN TEEHAN