Freedom Park, the 1-hectare public square in the centre of Phnom Penh that the government in November 2010 designated as the city’s sole authorised zone for protests, is set to be moved next to a petrol warehouse along National Road 5, officials said yesterday.
The relocation was first announced in a morning speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who said moving the protest zone to the outskirts would help beautify the city. Yet the opposition CNRP, which has made liberal use of the park in the past, criticised the decision.
Speaking at the 18th Disabled Persons’ Day at Koh Pich, Hun Sen said he had been in contact with Phnom Penh’s governor about the effort to move Freedom Park somewhere less visible, adding that the relocation would have no impact on freedom of expression.
“Recently, I called Pa Soche-atvong, because now we will perhaps not keep Freedom Park in the middle of the capital creating problems. [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng told Pa Socheatvong to look for a new Freedom Park,” Hun Sen told his audience.
“It will possibly be on National Road 5, at Kilometre 6, and we will transform that location into a public park,” he said. “The gatherings will not be different from the current ones, since people don’t go to look there, they watch it via broadcasts or Facebook.”
City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said authorities had not settled on the exact location along National Road 5 for the new Freedom Park but that a large Sokimex gas station not far from the Chroy Changvar bridge was the preferred location.
He said there had been too many complaints about protests held by aggrieved land-grabbing victims and the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which based its post-2013 election protests out of the square until masked thugs in January 2014 violently evicted them.
“The bank community located in the area wrote a letter to us to express concerns over security and safety when there are gatherings or the expression of ideas, since those things disturb them,” Chanyada said, adding that local vendors had made the same complaint.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that the opposition party did not support relocating the protest zone out of the city centre, and that the visibility and centrality of the current location was the reason it was accepted as the authorised location for protests in the first place.
“I have only a brief comment: We want Freedom Park to stay where it is, because it is accessible to the protesters, and nearby state buildings,” Sovann said. “It should be located in the middle of the city downtown and especially around the state buildings.”
Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap said she agreed that the current park’s visibility was key to its attractiveness as the location of protests and that many protesters may not be interested in using the new square.
“If the new location is on the outskirts, it will be difficult, since usually those people want for the public and the government to hear their opinions and concerns,” Sopheap said. “If it is located so far away, what’s the point for them to protest and express their opinions?”
The present Freedom Park is less than a minute’s walk from the US Embassy in Daun Penh district, and Hun Sen warned he could also place it directly in front of the embassy if there was too much criticism of the decision to move it.
“The US is good at supporting the demonstrations, so it would be easy if Freedom Park was moved in front of the US Embassy,” Hun Sen said, adding that the current location was restricting tourists from accessing nearby Wat Phnom during protests that spilled outside the park.
“We will move it out, and if that is not satisfactory, we will locate it in front of the US Embassy,” he said. “It’s our right, because those behind the protests are NGOs sponsored by the US.”
US Embassy spokesman Jay Raman said the embassy had no comment about the threat.
A tiled public square 198-by-55-metres wide, Freedom Park was declared the city’s official protest zone by the capital’s then-governor Kep Chuktema in November 2010 as an effort by authorities to contain demonstrations to an easily manageable area.
It is used often for protests, but was ringed with razor wire for six months after the January 2014 crackdown by the government. CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua led a campaign to reopen it but was repeatedly chased away by district security guards who beat those who did not flee.
Bov Sophea, an anti-eviction activist from the Boeung Kak lake community who has frequently used Freedom Park for protests, said that she had no doubts about why the government wanted to move the protest square out of the sight of those in the city centre.
“Even when the park was in the centre of town, we could not gather there easily. If they move it further, it will be easier for authorities to use violence on citizens and hide the bad things about the government,” Sophea said. “It means they won’t get criticised.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALEX WILLEMYNS