Phnom Penh City Hall yesterday inaugurated the country’s first “Freedom Park,” a public space where small-scale demonstrations are allowed after short-term notice to authorities.
Officials yesterday urged protesters to use the park in Daun Penh district, which the political opposition and other groups fear may stifle dissent. A 2009 law on demonstrations called for the creation of such spaces in each municipality and province.
Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema yesterday said protesters had to inform authorities of a demonstration at the park five days in advance, although the law says 12 hours is sufficient.
“When you want to protest, you just submit the number of protesters and the name of the person who made the request five days beforehand,” Mr Chuktema said during yesterday’s inauguration ceremony.
According to the 2009 law, up to 200 people can gather at a Freedom Park if authorities are given a minimum of 12 hours’ notice. A minimum of 5 days’ notice is required for larger demonstrations at other public venues. However, the law does not apply to religious gatherings, gatherings during electoral campaign rallies or labor-dispute related gatherings that take place near businesses.
Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, confirmed that protests were still allowed outside the park with sufficient notice.
“They can demonstrate outside of the park when they ask the permission from authorities,” Lt Gen Sopheak said. “It does not mean we provide the Freedom Park and they cannot demonstrate outside.”
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition SRP, said yesterday that the 200-person limit for the Freedom Park was too small and that protesters needed to gather near government institutions. Mr Sovann also noted that the government had often rejected protest requests in the past.
“The park should be constructed close to the national institutions,” Mr Sovann said. “If it is close to the important government institutions, they can hear the people’s voice.”
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, pointed out that the new law on demonstrations required shorter notice, 12 hours, for protests at Freedom Parks than had been required for protests in the past. The previous law on demonstrations from 1991 required at least three days’ notice, according to a copy.
Although the Freedom Park is designated for protests, other activities are also welcome.
“This Freedom Park is not only for demonstrations,” Mr Chuktema said at yesterday’s inauguration. “They will not protest everyday. People can use this for exercise or concerts.”
The new Freedom Park cost $183,597 to build and is a nearly 12,000-square-meter rectangle of red and white tiles, with public toilets at one end. It sits east of Canadia Tower, between Streets 106 and 108.
During the day, used cars line the surrounding streets and car dealers sit in the shade of trees that line the edges of the park, playing chess or just waiting for a buyer.
Car dealer Taing Meng Srun said he was aware of the new Freedom Park’s purpose and said he supported the park, although he was worried that it might affect business.
“It think it’s also good to have the Freedom Park,” Mr Meng Srun said at the park. “It’s not good to protest in front of the prime minister’s house, it’s a kind of anarchy.”
“When the protesters come here, I will move my cars away,” he added.