Riot police arrested an NGO leader near the Royal Palace on Phnom Penh’s Riverside yesterday in an apparent bid to enforce an ongoing ban on public gatherings.
As security guards pushed and scuffled with bystanders and members of several NGOs during an attempt to hold a vigil for 23 people in custody after being arrested at protests supporting a garment worker strike on January 2 and 3, two pick-up trucks full of riot police stopped at about 5:30pm.
Police in the back hopped out of one of the trucks and shoved their way towards Sok Chhun Oeung, who has served as acting president of Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA) since the NGO’s president, Vorn Pov, was arrested during a demonstration at the Yakjin garment factory on January 2.
“I think their primary reason [for the arrest] is complete intolerance of gatherings,” Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said. “[Demonstrators] did nothing except sing and ask for the release of the 23 people.”
The group of about 50 people – including members of IDEA – had originally planned to hold a small vigil at Wat Ounalom, where they would pray for their comrades still detained at Correctional Centre 3 in Kampong Cham and release balloons.
When people arrived at the pagoda at 4pm, a group of about 35 Daun Penh district security guards were already standing in front; some in security guard uniforms, some in plain clothes, but all wearing black motorcycle helmets and carrying police batons.
As a mix of NGO workers, journalists and bystanders curious about what was going on in one of the capital’s busiest areas gathered, security guards blew whistles and shouted at people while walking back and forth in front of Wat Ounalom, clearing out the gathering crowd.
Before he moved from the pagoda to the sidewalk across from the Royal Palace, where he was arrested, Oeung said the government’s recent limiting of citizens’ ability to hold public demonstrations is diluting Cambodia’s freedom of expression.
“I think authorities taking measures to break us up shows us that freedom of expression in Cambodia today is very narrow,” Oeung told the Post less than an hour before police arrested him. “Cambodia has respect for democracy, but when we’re not allowed to gather, it means the government does not have respect for democracy.”
Security guards followed people, who gathered across from the palace, corralling the group into a small herd and pushing them along the sidewalk in a series of scuffles, as the group intermittently sang and linked arms.
Licadho and the Community Legal Education Centre each sent a lawyer to the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Department after Oeung’s arrest, Pilorge said. But police would not allow access to him.
The government will likely face international backlash in the wake of yesterday’s arrest, Pilorge added.
“This government needs to change its behaviour,” Pilorge said.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith and Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan could not be reached last night.