Foreigners who join protests against the government will now be subject to arrest and deportation, Phnom Penh’s governor and the government’s spokesman said yesterday, in the latest effort by the CPP to curb outside influence in the country’s political affairs.
During a visit to the Pur Senchey Vocational Training Center, municipal governor Pa Socheatvong defended the government’s decision to push ahead with the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations, which was passed by CPP lawmakers on Monday.
Mr. Socheatvong said one of the reasons that many NGOs were against the law was because foreign-funded groups were involved in political activities outside their stated purpose, adding that the government would no longer tolerate the involvement of foreigners in protests.
“We have looked at the activities of foreigners, it seems like they are involved with many problems,” the governor said.
“What is the reason that foreigners come to hold the banners in Cambodia that say ‘no’ like other people?” he said, referencing recent protests against the NGO law.
“Previously, we just tolerated them. Now, I will not allow them to be free,” he said. “Now we know who they are, if they need to be arrested and deported, make it known…because they violate our sovereignty.”
Asked about Mr. Socheatvong’s comments, Sok Phal, head of the Interior Ministry’s immigration department, said he did “not know about this problem yet.”
Mao Chandara, director of the ministry’s passport department, declined to comment.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, however, confirmed that foreign nationals are now banned from taking part in anti-government demonstrations.
“The foreigners have no right to protest against the government. If you abuse the rule of law, you are subject to the court of law,” Mr. Siphan said.
Foreigners who have a grievance to bring against the government should do so through the judiciary, he added.
“If you don’t like something, go to court to protect your interests,” he said. “It is a sovereign state, we will respect you unless you abuse that.”
“Do you have the right to vote?” Mr. Siphan asked a foreign reporter. “You don’t have the same rights. Cambodians have our own rights, sovereignty and our own laws.”
Mr. Siphan said that foreigners who take part in protests would violate the country’s immigration law. Asked what provision prevented such activities, Mr. Siphan said he was “not a lawyer.”
“I have no idea, I don’t work for the visa department,” he said. “It depends on your interpretation of the law.”
Prominent human rights attorney Sok Sam Oeun said he was not aware of any laws that restrict foreign nationals from protesting against the government.
“I do not see any provisions of the law stating that foreigners joining demonstrations should be deported or anything like that,” he said.
Political analyst Ou Virak said the government’s latest restriction—coming as the CPP pushes through a law that critics say could be used to quell criticism from NGOs—showed its paranoia about foreign influence in the country.
“It’s part of the same reason as the NGO law, and that is the paranoia of this revolution being backed by Western governments and international organizations, and the government is looking at it from that perspective,” Mr. Virak said.
“So if that is the case, they will see the participation of foreigners in these protests as helping to bring about regime change.”
Though foreigners have seldom been on the frontlines of protests following the disputed July 2013 national election, foreign rights workers have often been among crowds, either as observers or participants.
Joel Preston, an Australian who works with the Community Legal Education Center, stood alongside garment workers as unions became increasingly active in late 2013 and launched a nationwide strike for a higher minimum wage.
Mr. Preston said yesterday that he would continue to join unions if they decide to take their cause to the streets.
“I’m going to be there to support the trade unions and support my clients when they need me to be, regardless of what anyone says,” he said.
“The most important thing is that Cambodians can exercise freedom of assembly and continue pushing for things they want to see happen,” he added. “And we will continue to support them.”