When Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema inaugurated the country’s first “freedom park” on Nov 4, 2010, he hailed it as a place for aggrieved people to air their discontents, a solid example of the government’s commitment to free speech.
But a year on, human rights groups, opposition lawmakers and protesters themselves say Freedom Park has only made it harder for anyone with something critical to say to be heard.
“Nothing has changed,” SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said. “People respect the law, they go to the park…but their problems never get solved. I don’t think the Freedom Park has helped at all.”
The “park,” an open, concrete-tiled space the size of two football pitches at the back of the Canadia tower, is part of the 2009 Law on Public Assembly and Peaceful Demonstration, which defines where people can protest in Phnom Penh.
Besides laying out rules on how big demonstrations can get and how much advance notice organizers must give government authorities, the law called on every province and municipality to build similar freedom parks for protests of up to 200 people to gather.
City Hall in mid-2010 selected the out-of-the-way location for the park, but critics said the location seemed aimed at keeping protestors out of sight and out of mind of the city’s-and the country’s-leaders.
Located near the noisy construction site for the new Vattanac Tower and surrounded on all sides by used car dealers who park their vehicles along the nearby curbs, a year of organized protests at Freedom Park have not changed the minds of critics.
“People like to organize the demonstration outside Parliament, because what is the purpose of a demonstration? It is to attract attention,” said Thun Saray, president of local rights groups Adhoc.
“If they demonstrate at the park, not many people will see them or hear them,” he said.
“Even if we shout for help for a month or a year there would be no one to come and help us. Only the car dealers hear what we ask for,” said Tol Sreypeou, who was among some 200 residents of Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak lake community who held a weeklong protest at the park in January.
Demanding better compensation for the homes they were being evicted from to make way for a CPP senator’s controversial real estate project at Boeng Kak, the protestors set fire to effigies of the senator’s firm, but only a handful of journalists were there to see the demonstration at Freedom Park.
“We protested for a week but no government officials came to visit or find a solution for us. It felt like we were protesting in the middle of a forest,” Ms Sreypeou said. “There was only [Daun Penh district deputy governor] Sok Penhvuth, and he played chess while watching us.”
Since the park opened, authorities have allowed some unannounced protests to proceed elsewhere around Phnom Penh. But just as they did before, police have also cracked down, sometimes beating and arresting peaceful protesters in the process. Other times, the city has told protesters to cancel their plans, invariably citing general concerns about security, public order and ensuring the free flow of traffic.
Mr Saray, of Adhoc, said the government’s proffered concerns about traffic and public safety bore some merit; frustrated protesters have on occasion blocked city roads. But he said authorities also had an obligation to help demonstrators find an alternative to their plans rather than denying them the right to organize a march or protest altogether.
According to Mr Saray, some local officials are also misinterpreting the law behind Freedom Park when they insist that demonstration organizers need their approval before going ahead with any plans to protest. The law makes it clear that organizers need only give authorities advance notice: 12 hours on working days, 36 hours on holidays.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which drafted the public assembly law, defended the park and dismissed complaints about its location.
“It is for people to express their will. It is better than people marching along the street and causing traffic jams,” he said.
“If they put it [next to government offices], they will say it is far from Wat Phnom. We cannot satisfy everyone.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, said the park needs a change of name.
“The park does not fit its name. It was just created to limit expression,” Mr Chhun said.