Freedom Park, an area in central Phnom Penh set aside for public demonstrations, may be moved to the city’s northern outskirts, Prime Minister Hun Sen said on Tuesday, adding that the choice of the current location was a mistake from the outset.
The prospective new location, a park along National Road 5 in Russei Keo district’s Kilometr Pram Muoy commune, is surrounded by warehouses to the north and south and the Tonle Sap river to the east.
“The other day, I called [Phnom Penh Governor] Pa Socheatvong, and maybe now we won’t keep Freedom Park in the center of the city where it causes anarchy,” Mr. Hun Sen said during a speech at the Koh Pich Exhibition Center to commemorate the 18th National Day of Persons with Disabilities.
“We were wrong to use that area,” he said of the current location between Wat Phnom and Vattanac Tower. “This area is close to the historic Wat Phnom, so there should be something there for people to go and visit.”
“We’ll make the current place a garden, and use part of it for disabled people to perform there,” Mr. Hun Sen said, positing that street musicians would draw citizens and tourists to the area. He said the move would make little difference to protesters, as they often turn to Facebook to determine where to gather.
“If there is someone who disagrees, put it in front of the U.S. Embassy,” he quipped.
“The U.S. is good at supporting demonstrations.”
The U.S. Embassy is situated beside Wat Phnom, a few hundred meters from the park. Officials from the embassy declined to comment.
Human rights NGOs, which make occasional use of the park, criticized the proposed move.
“It appears that this is the latest in a string of moves by the authorities aiming to stifle peaceful dissent, as the elections draw ever closer,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, noting that citizens had the right to protest in public spaces as long as they notified authorities.
The idea to move the park arose from a recent public forum, said City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada.
“Banks surrounding Freedom Park had complained that it affected their business when there were people gathering to express their opinions at Freedom Park,” Mr. Chanyada said.
“Today, we will send a letter to the Ministry of Interior to ask for a decision on the new location,” he said, adding that the ministry would make the final call on the timing and location of the move.
Ms. Sopheap, of the human rights center, said the government was “seriously mistaken if it believes that the people’s grievances can be solved by following an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach.”
“It is not the expression of peaceful dissent which causes anarchy; rather, it is the arbitrary suppression of fundamental freedoms,” she added.
Naly Pilorge, deputy director of advocacy for local rights group Licadho, echoed Ms. Sopheap.
“The past decisions to designate, limit and then stop gatherings in Freedom Park were just ways to restrict and silence citizens from raising issues affecting their daily lives,” she said.
Freedom Park was closed off with razor wire in January 2014 after the government violently cleared it out following mass opposition demonstrations.
It was reopened in August that year; however, protests have since been arbitrarily permitted or banned depending on the purpose and planners.
“This recent decision to designate gatherings to yet another area in Phnom Penh is just another example of the lack of tolerance of the government to allow citizens to raise problems in their country and in their communities,” Ms. Pilorge said.
“Why is the government so afraid to hear voices and opinions from its citizens if all is well in Cambodia?”