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Opening marks a ‘return to freedom’

Police pack away razor wire at Freedom Park after it was officially reopened
Police pack away razor wire at Freedom Park after it was officially reopened yesterday. Vireak Mai

Opening marks a ‘return to freedom’

After more than half a year in lockdown, Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park reopened to the public yesterday morning, while the results of an investigation repeatedly cited as the reason for its ongoing closure remained elusive.

At about 8am, more than 100 mixed forces along with Daun Penh district security guards – who have on numerous occasions beaten people protesting against the park’s closure – brought down the razor-wire barricades surrounding the area.

The reopening of the park, part of an agreement between the Cambodia National Rescue Party and the Cambodian People’s Party to end the political deadlock, came a day after opposition lawmakers were sworn into the National Assembly.

CNRP parliamentarian Mu Sochua, who personally headed a months-long campaign to “free Freedom Park”, said its reopening marked a return of freedom to the Kingdom.

“It is a good sign . . . Freedom Park is a symbol of freedom of assembly and expression and democracy,” she said. “It’s not just about [the park] . . . it’s also the lifting of all blanket bans on protests.”

In January, the park, which was established in 2010 as the capital’s designated space for people to exercise their freedoms of assembly and expression, was declared off limits to demonstrators and gatherings with political undertones.

On the eve of Labour Day demonstrations on May 1, razor-wire fences were erected around the park, blocking all entrances.

Last month, a protest calling for the government to bring down the barricades ended in violence when the crowd responded to baton-wielding security guards’ aggressive attempts to disperse them with brutal mob beatings.

Seven CNRP lawmakers and four other party members have been arrested for their alleged role in the violence. Three of them remain in prison, while the rest – as well as CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha – have been summonsed to court on various dates over the next week for further questioning.

Officials had previously said the reopening of the park was dependent on the closure of government investigations into the fatal violence of early January and other clashes.

Various government officials have said that one such investigation ended months ago.

But no findings have been released publicly, and as the fences were dismantled yesterday, results seemed as distant as ever before.

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said “authorities are still investigating the January violence”, but the park was opened up again because “security and public order are back to normal”.

While Sochua said she had “no idea” what was happening with the investigation, she told the Post that the National Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, which will be controlled by the CNRP,
would investigate the events.

As the park reopened, local residents and business owners celebrated.

Food vendor Siv Lin said her income had plummeted with the park’s closure. “Previously, we commanded some 300,000 riel [$75] per day . . . recently we have earned only 40,000 riel.”

Phuong Chea, a regular at park protests, said people could once again “express their freedom”.

Police officers move riot barricades in preparation for the reopening of Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park
Police officers move riot barricades in preparation for the reopening of Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park yesterday, seven months after security forces violently drove opposition supporters out. Vireak Mai

But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan warned that while Freedom Park “belongs to the public”, the government “won’t let any group or person [use it] to create a public disturbance”.

Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the park reopening had only “symbolic value”.

“It also shows that the CPP . . . does whatever it wants,” he said. “The implementation of the ban was never anything to do with the law.”

Virak said that if the government was interested in complying with its 2009 Law on Peaceful Assembly, it should create a version of Freedom Park in every province.

“This should have happened six months after it was introduced,” he said.

He added that he did not expect to ever see the results of any government investigation.

“It is no longer politically convenient for either of the two parties,” he said.

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