Fears of violence during International Human Rights Day celebrations on Saturday proved unfounded as Phnom Penh City Hall eased up on its blanket ban on public celebrations of the day at the last minute.
Since October 31, civil society groups had lodged multiple requests with the municipality to hold gatherings on December 10. Each of them were rejected, with City Hall suggesting they hold celebrations at NGO offices or rent a private space.
Prom Sophal, secretary-general of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Coalition (CHRAC), said yesterday that authorities had briefly granted permission for the event on December 8, but revoked it within the space of an afternoon.
The following day, CHRAC called a meeting in which its members resolved to hold a public event regardless and notified the municipality, Sophal said, adding that on Saturday, he arrived at Freedom Park to find it full of armed police.
“I did not think they would allow us to do an event there,” he said, adding that the majority of the police left shortly after. “Later on, a police officer went to the centre of Freedom Park . . . I asked him, ‘Will you allow us to hold the Human Rights Day Event here?’ And he said, ‘No problem, we’ll allow you to do the event, but the municipality won’t allow you to do much, just in Freedom Park’.”
Municipal police chief Choun Sovann could not be reached for comment. However, City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada said the fact Saturday’s event took place did not reflect a softening of City Hall’s position.
“They did not respect City Hall’s announcement that we did not allow them to hold an event. However, they could still do it [at Freedom Park], but they did not march,” Chanyada said. “This showed that we used a compromise approach. It does not mean our letter was ineffective.”
CHRAC’s Sophal estimated that between 3,000 and 3,500 people eventually gathered in Freedom Park, although rights group Licadho pegged the total attendees at closer to 1,000.
Wan-Hea Lee, of the UN’s human rights office, said in an email yesterday that she believed it was “direct contact between the organizers and the authorities that ultimately led to a good outcome”.
Licadho estimated that some 11,000 people took part in events around the country last week, but noted that authorities in Kampot prevented three planned events.