Some 400 women from various associations, unions and civil society organisation were blocked by Phnom Penh municipal security forces from marching from the Olympic Stadium to the Council of Ministers to deliver a joint petition on International Women’s Day which fell on Friday.
Ou Tep Phallin, the head of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, said the marchers represented, among others, sex workers, garment workers, housemaids and women who are suffering in land disputes.
Phallin said around 200 members of the security forces in civilian clothes stood as a barrier to the procession. The women were forced to separate into two groups before their petition was accepted by authorities who promised to forward it to the Council of Ministers.
“We are sad that the authorities blocked us. Our country is a democracy where freedom of association and expression are protected, but we were banned from exercising our rights,” she said.
The group listed seven demands in the petition. They requested the government to create a centre for baby care at workplaces and a safe shelter for women and maids experiencing domestic violence.
“We demand [the centres] because all workers in the informal economic system don’t have anyone to take care of their children and are forced to place them in pushchairs. There shall be baby care centres according to the law,” she said.
The group also demanded actions to stop harassment and sexual violence against women at workplaces, violence against women working as human right defenders, reform of the transportation system for garment workers to avoid traffic accidents, and an effective mechanism to protect Cambodian migrant workers from exploitation, trafficking and slavery.
“We demand that the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training review protective mechanism for workers living abroad to ensure they receive good healthcare, reasonable salary and not be mistreated by employers,” she said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Hall spokesperson Met Meas Pheakdey said the authorities blocked the procession because the group failed to follow a mutual agreement. He said city hall had instructed the group to mark the event at their own place and not organise a march that could disrupt social order.
“We told them about public order issues such as traffic congestion and security, so we couldn’t grant their wishes. As you can see in Phnom Penh currently, there are traffic jams even without such marches,” he said.
Rights group Adhoc spokesman Soeung Sen Karuna said traffic congestion was merely an excuse used by the authorities to ban the women from exercising their rights.
He said even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has appealed for freedom of association and assembly, as long as they are peaceful.
“We always see protests in western countries where police help coordinate or stop traffic for people to march to deliver their petitions at any institutions they wish."
“In South Korea, sometimes Cambodian workers are allowed to march to express their grievance even if they are not Korean citizens. Police there always help facilitate the workers’ processions to deliver petitions at relevant institutions. The police’s duty is to help people make their voices heard,” he said.
Kin Phea, the director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said the group should send a few representatives to the Council of Ministers instead of marching if their purpose was merely to deliver a petition.
“The authorities always cite security and public order as reasons for their rejection. That, in turn, leads civil society organisations to use it as an excuse to paint a grim picture of the government. It makes foreigners believe that the government is a dictatorial regime that deprives people of freedom,” he said.
He urged civil society organisations to be sincere with their demands and the authorities to coordinate their activities if they truly intend to exercise their rights.
“There should be coordination and civil society organisations themselves must show its clear purpose. They must not use petition submissions as an excuse to do something differently because, over the years, the authorities gained hands-on experience where a stated event turned out to be a protest for something else,” he said.