More than 200 activists attempting to cycle from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to the National Assembly in Phnom Penh to mark International Women’s Day were penned in by authorities Tuesday morning after pedaling less than 100 meters.
Just after 8 a.m., the mostly female rights activists, union officials, garment workers and NGO staffers departed from the ministry in Meanchey district, planning to ride 9 km to Parliament to call on the government to end violence against women.
But they had barely started before they were boxed in by more than 60 security guards, district police and military police officers—aided by 10 large dump trucks—who blocked both lanes of Trung Morn Street.
The cyclists were confined to a 250-meter section of road for almost three hours, with a minor scuffle taking place when a group of activists tried to leave, before finally being allowed to depart at about 11 a.m.
Chim Channeang, coordinator of women’s rights group NGO-Cedaw, which helped organize the ride, said the group had received a warning from City Hall on Monday saying that it would only allow a static event in front of the ministry, but decided to press ahead with their plans.
“People had already left from the provinces to attend, so we decided to largely continue with the plan,” she said, explaining that organizers had decided not to deliver a petition to the National Assembly, but to rally outside instead.
“We were not planning to stop and obstruct traffic by giving out flowers, for example…so we didn’t think it would be a problem,” she said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said banning the bicycle ride was necessary to maintain public order and keep roads open, and questioned why the activists needed to cycle across the city.
“They can mark the day at their offices, why is it necessary to cycle for the celebration?” Mr. Dimanche said. “Everyone cannot cycle because it will cause public disorder.”
Deputy Meanchey district governor Ma Sopheap said that allowing the riders to go ahead would have sent a message that people could organize such rallies as they pleased.
“City Hall allowed them to mark the day only in front of the ministry. So if they insisted on riding their bikes, why shouldn’t we block them before they cause traffic jams?” he said.
Choub Sreynuth, an activist from the Cambodian Youth Network, said she had joined the ride because it seemed like an enjoyable way of drawing attention to an important cause.
“I wanted to ride my bike to mark this special day because it’s for fun and I want the public to know more about the situation women face in our country,” she said. “I see that in Cambodia, there is no effort to implement women’s rights yet.”