The opposition CNRP said Thursday it is forging ahead with plans to hold a three-day demonstration, which the party has dubbed a “camp-in,” despite a letter from the Ministry of Interior that says the protests can only go on for one day.
The Interior Ministry letter, dated Thursday and sent from Interior Minister Sar Kheng to Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong, says that the CNRP can only demonstrate from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday, bans any marches outside of the confines of Freedom Park and says that protesters cannot remain in the park overnight.
“The peaceful demonstration must be held only at Freedom Park and marches along the streets in Phnom Penh will not be allowed,” the letter states, adding that no more than 10,000 demonstrators can attend the CNRP’s protest.
The letter says that protests on Monday and Tuesday cannot go forward due to nationwide junior high school exams scheduled for the same day.
In a speech at Phnom Penh’s O’Russei market on Tuesday morning, opposition leader Sam Rainsy promised that CNRP supporters would “march through the whole of the city of Phnom Penh” as part of the planned demonstrations.
CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said that the party would move ahead with the planned three-day protests regardless of whether or not they received official approval.
“Our letter [outlining the CNRP’s demonstration plans] is to inform them [the Interior Ministry and City Hall] not to ask their permission. They have no right to stop us,” Mr. Chhay said.
“As long as they do not create trouble for us, we should be OK,” he said.
Legal experts and human rights activists said that official approval was not necessary in order for the demonstrations to be conducted according to the country’s laws.
Yeng Virak, the executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, said that nothing in Cambodia’s legal framework compels protest organizers to seek permission from local authorities, though they are required to inform authorities at least five days ahead of their planned activities.
“It’s not a permit system. It’s a notification system. In general, the answer of the responsible authorities should be yes all the time,” Mr. Virak said.
“You can organize the demonstration anywhere and with any number of people at any time and duration. But of course the authorities may…ask organizers to collaborate with them to make sure there is no disturbances or blocking [of traffic],” he added.
Following a meeting with CNRP members on Wednesday, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that municipal authorities could not agree to some of the CNRP’s requests, such as their plan to have 5,000 supporters camp out in Freedom Park for three straight days.
The much-criticized Law on Peaceful Demonstrations passed in 2010 states that relevant authorities must “respond positively” to any request unless “there is clear information indicating that the demonstrations may cause danger or may seriously jeopardize security, safety and public order.”
Still, the CNRP is under no legal obligation to get official approval for demonstrations, said Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc.
“When they [ruling CPP lawmakers] drafted the [demonstration] law they didn’t use the spirit of the Constitution as an important reference. They always try to narrow down the scope of the freedom allowed by the Constitution,” Mr. Saray said.
The Constitution states simply “The right to strike and to non-violent demonstration shall be implemented in the framework of a law.”
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent human rights lawyer and director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that by not giving their permission for the opposition demonstrations, City Hall and the Ministry of Interior might be reserving their right to disperse demonstrators should their activities be deemed illegal.
“If the local authorities say no, maybe authorities can use force to crack down,” he said, adding that by demonstrating without official approval, the CNRP would be pushing the government to respect its own laws.
“To test our freedom, sometimes we must demand it. Otherwise, freedom would be restricted,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)