Civil society and union leaders took their celebrations of Human Rights Day indoors yesterday, citing fears of being branded as colour revolutionaries.
The muted events marked a stark contrast from previous years, when the holiday was met by marches and rallies in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park and around the country.
At a panel discussion at the American Intercon Institute in Tuol Kork yesterday, Licadho’s monitoring head Am Sam Ath said the human rights situation had “dramatically declined” this year to the point that human rights defenders were afraid to celebrate the holiday in public.
“Freedom of gathering has been restricted, and that makes civil society organisations think that if we resist or gather in large scale, [the government] will attach that to politics,” Sam Ath said.
Licadho, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and Adhoc were among more than 100 NGOs who signed a statement calling for the government to end its clampdown on freedom of expression, assembly and association on Saturday.
“They accuse us of being partial to the opposition party or say we are the opposition, but in fact, we just stand on those principles,” Sam Ath said.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – the only viable challenger to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party – was summarily dissolved last month over widely decried accusations it was fomenting a foreign-backed “colour revolution”. In the lead-up to the dissolution, the government also arrested the CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, ratcheted up scrutiny of NGOs and abruptly shuttered numerous independent radio stations.
Human Rights Day, celebrated internationally on December 10, commemorates the adoption of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Obviously, we used to celebrate this event publicly annually, but this year, we need to celebrate this in a small and quiet room instead,” Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union President Ath Thorn said at a union event at a restaurant yesterday.
Thorn, who called on the government to end its crackdown to avoid economic sanctions, said union leaders also decided against hosting a public gathering for fear of being accused of political incitement. “I think that if this year we arranged it at the place that we use to do it annually, it will not be possible,” Thun said. “We are afraid of the word ‘colour revolution’.”
Protesters do not need permission from the government to gather but are required to inform authorities about their plans in advance, according to the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations. However, authorities routinely ban demonstrations – and even small private gatherings – on the grounds that organisers did not obtain prior permission.
Phnom Penh Municipal Hall spokesman Meas Metpheakdey said City Hall did not receive any letters informing authorities of planned protests to celebrate Human Rights Day.
“If they have not filed the letter, how can they know that City Hall would not permit it?” Metpheakdey said.
Government officials gave no indication that they were concerned about the fears raised by human rights groups yesterday.
Chin Malin, a spokesman at the Ministry of Justice and member of the government’s Cambodian Human Rights Committee, said he took the day as a reminder that peace is the “foundation of development”.
“It means that if there is no peace, then human rights, democracy and rule of law also cannot exist,” Malin said. “We have to maintain the peace that we have gotten through many difficulties, and democracy and rule of law and human rights will continue to develop.”
Malin was echoed by government spokesman Phay Siphan, who brushed off the qualms of NGOs and union leaders and said recent crackdowns were a matter of following “rule of law”.
“It’s not a matter of fear or not fear, it’s a matter of peace and stability in Cambodia,” Siphan said. “That’s the job of the government.”
Siphan added that NGOs had nothing to fear unless they had “hidden agendas”.
“But the majority are still going on operating in Cambodia, except for a few that received funds from foreigners.”
Additional reporting by Daphne Chen