Citing the need for order and claiming to be acting in the interests of this week’s foreign “guests,” the Phnom Penh Municipality has banned protests planned to call attention to corruption and poverty ahead of this week’s donor meeting.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara sent the order Friday, forbidding a coalition of unions and activist groups from staging a protest in front of the National Assembly Tuesday.
The demonstration would have taken place Tuesday, a day before Wednesday’s opening of the annual donors’ meeting, at which Cambodia’s foreign benefactors will review the government’s performance and decide how much aid to pledge to the country this year.
While organizers may promise—and want—to keep the protest peaceful, there is no guarantee outsiders will not stir up trouble, Chea Sophara said Sunday.
“We are afraid provocateurs will mix with the real demonstrators and the demonstrators will not be able to stop them,” the governor said, adding that he issued the order out of a sense of “my duty to the country.”
Large protests ahead of the donors’ meeting would show bad hospitality, Chea Sophara said. “We need to take care of our international guests.”
This year’s donor meeting marks the first time the meeting will take place in Cambodia. Observers have said Cambodia—once a showpiece of nation-building and foreign aid—has slipped as an international priority, eclipsed by the rebuilding of Afghanistan and East Timor and a worldwide economic slump.
But banning the protests will send the wrong message to donors, one organizer said.
“I think they should be showcasing this kind of thing, to say to the donors, ‘Look, we have this kind of interest where people peacefully put their ideas on the table,’” said George McLeod, international liaison for the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia.
At a news conference scheduled for today, the seven protest organizers plan to announce that they will press ahead with the protests anyway.
“We will demonstrate. That is our stance,” Cambodian Independent Farmers’ Association leader Chham Chhany said.
Citing public security is just a way to distract attention away from the real issues the protest will raise, Chham Chhany said.
“Our aim is to ask the donor countries to pressure the government because the government has governed badly. They take donor money for themselves, not the real nation,” Chham Chhany said.
That, the government counters, is a narrow view. Cambodia is in crisis, and protests will only make the situation worse, Ministry of Commerce Secretary of State Sok Siphana said.
“Our country needs stability and we need the foreign investment,” he said.
Foreign investment has fallen every year since 1997, leaving foreign aid as the country’s sole lifeline, Sok Siphana said.
That demonstrators continue to press their demands even in this climate shows they do not understand the real needs of people they claim to be helping, Sok Siphana said.
“I don’t believe the seven associations are representative of 180,000 workers. They demonstrate, but it’s not balanced,” he said.
Although the government often bans such protests, and organizers often ignore the bans, this particular move could carry heavy consequences, McLeod said.
“It’s a symbolic gesture. It comes down to a basic attitude, which is that…activism like this is somehow threatening to stability,” McLeod said. “The protest is not at all trying to embarrass the government. We’re definitely in favor of Cambodia getting aid. Our point is that aid should be better managed. We’re saying, ‘Govern better.’”
That kind of attitude is smug and out of touch, Sok Siphana said. And it misses the basic point, which Cambodians have learned too well over three decades of war: “We have the right to public security.”
(Additional reporting by Bill Myers)