Government Defended Protest Ban in Talks With European Union

Cambodia blamed its suspension of the constitutional right to freedom of assembly on an unruly political opposition during bilateral talks with the European Union in Brussels last week, and claimed that the restrictions are temporary, Foreign Affairs Secretary of State Ouch Borith said on his return to Phnom Penh on Saturday.

Speaking with reporters at Phnom Penh International Airport, Mr. Borith said the four days of “candid and constructive” talks in Brussels, the latest iteration of the E.U.-Cambodia Joint Committee, touched on everything from aid and trade to human rights.

“We said clearly that it is a temporary ban, it is not eliminated,” Mr. Borith said of the government’s restriction on peaceful assembly, a ban which legal experts say is illegal.

“It is to stabilize a situation that could affect the safety of society and the people’s livelihood. This is the government’s main goal,” he told reporters.

The Interior Ministry imposed the assembly ban on January 4, the day police and plainclothes government thugs wielding metal pipes and truncheons broke up a peaceful protest camp in Phnom Penh’s so-called “Freedom Park,” which the government had specifically designated as a meeting place for protests.

Mr. Borith said the government, which has broken up several peaceful protests since the ban on gatherings went into force, would like to do just that.

“I spoke clearly with the E.U. that this [ban] is not what we want, but we have to do it to maintain peace,” he said.

“I also told the E.U. that the Cambodian government vows to protect and promote human rights and democracy. But we are strongly against actions that use the values of human rights and democracy for the political interests of a small group of people,” he added, a clear and oft-used reference to the opposition CNRP, which claims it won the July national election amid massive vote rigging by the ruling CPP.

Mr. Borith said the E.U. in turn raised the issue of Cambodia’s sugar export to Europe, which enters the trading bloc duty free thanks to a trade scheme for developing countries called Everything But Arms (EBA).

Thousands of Cambodian farmers accuse the sugarcane plantations, which are backed by wealthy businessmen with links to the ruling CPP, of stealing their land and, along with rights groups and some European Parliament members, want the trade benefits for Cambodian sugar suspended.

“They [the E.U.] raised this issue, but they raised it to praise the government’s will to solve land issues, including sugarcane land,” Mr. Borith said.

The government placed a freeze on the granting of new land concessions for industrial-scale plantations in 2012, and in recent months started negotiations with the E.U. in Phnom Penh on how to help the families who have lost land to sugarcane plantations in particular.

Mr. Borith said an E.U. delegation would be visiting Cambodia on March 25 to follow up on many of the issues discussed in Brussels.

According to a statement from the E.U., the block’s trade commissioner, Karel de Gucht, will visit the country tomorrow to meet with Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol.

Mr. de Gucht has been petitioned to investigate Cambodia’s land concessions for their many alleged human rights abuses against poor farmers but he has insisted that the conditions for a probe on the basis of rights abuses have not been met.

Global soft drinks giant Coca-Cola, however, is currently undertaking its own investigation of alleged rights abuses by sugar plantations with which it does business in Cambodia.

Mr. Borith had a decidedly more upbeat assessment of the talks in Brussels than that offered on Friday by an E.U. official who also attended the meetings.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said the E.U. urged Cambodia to release 21 activists widely believed to have been wrongly arrested during a deadly crackdown on protesting garment workers in January.

The officials said the E.U. also impressed upon the Cambodian government delegation the need to reform their courts and election commission, and warned of dire political consequences for the CPP in the next national elections if they failed to heed calls for reforms.

The long-ruling CPP officially won last year’s national elections by its narrowest ever margin, 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55 seats, in 20 years.

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