Thousands of protesters were on a collision course with authorities ahead of International Human Rights Day on Saturday, with Phnom Penh’s City Hall warning would-be marchers to celebrate their human rights at home.
Authorities on Friday vowed to “maintain order” as organizers planned events seemingly in open defiance of City Hall’s earlier rejection of their proposals.
“The authorities will not allow us to have an event in Freedom Park, but Plan A is to assemble at Freedom Park,” said Prum Sophal, secretary-general of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, which represents 22 NGOs.
Between 3,500 and 5,000 people are set to assemble there on Saturday, despite the expectation of a clash, to commemorate what is also a national holiday in Cambodia, he said.
According to a proposal laid out by Mr. Sophal, the protesters’ Plan B is no less provocative.
“If there are forces…blocking us from Freedom Park, we will move to Wat Phnom,” he said.
In a letter last month, City Hall officials rejected a request for protesters to march 2.5 km from Freedom Park to Wat Botum.
The gulf between civil society and authorities has split open over the course of the year amid a tightening ban on public marches and violent crackdowns on some that went ahead without permission. Rights organizations have said that under laws governing demonstrations, protesters should only have to notify authorities of their plans—not seek permission—but City Hall has demanded that organizers lodge requests, which it has consistently rejected.
Assembly at Freedom Park—the public space designated for demonstrations—has also been constricted, and Prime Minister Hun Sen announced this week that he wants to move the park to the outskirts of the city, effectively banishing protesters from the city center.
Mr. Sophal claimed that protesters would not be defying City Hall’s orders on Saturday because their walk to Wat Phnom would not be organized but scattered.
“They will disperse us from the ground, because they don’t allow us to march,” he said. “So, without marching, we all will go directly to Wat Phnom.”
Mean Chanyada, Phnom Penh’s deputy governor and City Hall spokesman, said officials would host an authorized event on Koh Pich island and warned that authorities would “take measures to maintain order” against groups found marching through the capital’s streets.
“It’s not necessary to march through public spaces to mark human rights day,” Mr. Chanyada said. “Even if we mark it at home, it signifies respect for human rights.”
The lead-up to Saturday has been marked by more than 30 marches and forums across the country. Tensions were already mounting around those earlier events.
On Friday, Kampot provincial officials shut down a public forum in which about 80 villagers gathered to discuss human rights issues, rights group Licadho said in a statement.
“A group of local authorities, led by a Chhuk district official, ordered the villagers to halt the forum and dismantle the meeting tent after Kampot’s governor claimed the group required permission to hold their event,” the statement said. “Authorities also said that another two celebrations planned for tomorrow in Kampot would not be allowed.”
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the government’s threats against Cambodia’s civil society had resulted in the desired effect.
“Some NGOs are pulling back out of concern for self-preservation, or they are moderating their remarks, thus making it easier for the government to get away with rights abuses,” he said in an email. “These civil society activists play an irreplaceable role, which is why PM Hun Sen and his government are so keen on intimidating and silencing them.”
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