With thousands of participants at rallies across Phnom Penh, International Human Rights Day was celebrated without violence or confrontation with authorities yesterday.
At events held all over the capital, issues ranging from impunity to unjust arrests and prosecution were lifted front and centre by activists, politicians and marchers, some of whom spent five days trekking from Ratanakkiri province.
Throngs of marchers gathered outside the National Assembly yesterday morning, demanding government action on a host of issues.
Meanwhile, speakers at a Freedom Park rally focused mainly on Cambodia’s need for a court system independent of the government.
Under a large tent at the park, more than 1,000 people listened to speakers and danced to music played on stage. Banners on the tent bore slogans, including “We need an independent judiciary for protecting social justice”. T-shirts worn by many read “The existence of an independent judiciary leads to the respect for human rights.”
“It is learning a new language,” one of several speakers said of the government’s attitude toward human rights. “Through tireless repetition . . . we will help them understand what we mean by human rights protection.”
Sok Sam Oeun, chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, used the event to remind people of the police and judiciary’s failure to investigate or prosecute authorities responsible for the deaths of at least five people on January 3 during a wage strike.
In addition to those who died that day, dozens were injured when authorities fired automatic weapons at raucous demonstrators who were supporting a nationwide garment worker action over wages.
“For nearly a year, the killings, assumed to be committed by police or military officials, of innocent people has not been investigated properly,” Sam Oeun said. “We must say ‘no’ to living with abuse, threats and denial of freedom of expression.”
Although people waving Cambodian flags cheered and danced at events, a cloud of mourning moved in. Chan Soveth, deputy director of the land investigation and natural resources department for rights group Adhoc, had died at his home of an apparent heart condition. He had monitored the event each year for the past two decades.
Later in the day, on Phnom Penh’s riverside, across from the Council for the Development of Cambodia, nearly 1,000 people cheered as Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy took the stage.
Rainsy and Sokha both spoke about the arrests of the so-called Boeung Kak 13 last month, criticising them as unjust, and called for an end to a culture of impunity in Cambodia.
During a gathering at Koh Pich Exhibition Center yesterday morning, Phnom Penh municipal Governor Pa Socheatvong had said demands for the release of 13 land activists who were arrested last month must go to the courts.
“This is not our matter, it’s related to the court’s procedure,” Socheatvong told a Post reporter at the ceremony yesterday morning. “Why do they like saying everything is related to City Hall? . . . Why don’t they pay attention?”
The members of Boeung Kak lake and other local communities were arrested on November 10 and 11 and sentenced to one year in prison in just over 24 hours.
Rainsy asserted yesterday that the opposition party will receive its demand for a TV station next year and that the National Election Committee will become less biased against challengers to the ruling party.
“I guarantee in 2015 that people will turn on National Rescue TV,” Rainsy said. “We held demonstrations in previous times to change the NEC . . . the NEC will be changed.”