The question of whether Cambodian law will ever allow citizens unfettered freedom to protest against the government remained unanswered Thursday, after detailed talks between NGOs and the Ministry of Interior about the draft law on public assembly.
NGO workers repeatedly asked Interior Ministry officials during the meeting if the state’s ability to deny permission to protests based on “security, safety and order of the public” could be better defined, but no answer was forthcoming.
Asked if a protest specifically calling for the resignation of a prime minister would violate public order and be denied a permit, Ministry of Interior Secretary of State Nuth Sa An said that could be the case.
“If there is enough reason to oust the elected prime minister, it must be through a vote,” Nuth Sa An said.
“If holding a demonstration to oust [a prime minister] will cause political instability, then permission will not be granted,” he said.
Nuth Sa An also questioned the legitimacy of the mass demonstrations in Thailand that led to the resignation this week of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
“Opposition parties in Thailand seemingly violated the law,” he said.
“A demonstration demanding a policy change or to make a correction could be allowed,” he said of Cambodia. “Critique for development is possible; ousting is impossible.”
Nuth Sa An said later by telephone that protesters should not call for the removal of an official, but should call on the prime minister to do it.
“If [a minister] did something wrong, they can demonstrate against him, as in a land dispute, and request to the prime minister to have him removed,” he said.
During summits with Asean leaders and visits by heads of state, permission to protest would be denied for security reasons, he said.
Suth Dina, president of the Khmer Front Party, which is frequently denied permission to protest and whose members have been viciously beaten by police breaking up their peaceful marches, said demonstrations calling for a leader’s resignation are legitimate in a democracy.
“Other countries usually hold demonstrations during big meetings, like [World Trade Organization] or [European Union] summits,” he said.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said the Constitution guarantees Cambodians the right to peacefully request the resignation of a prime minister.
Allowing protests during international conferences would boost Cambodia’s image abroad, he added.
“[Government officials] think guests will be impressed by empty streets with no people and no beggars. But in fact…many people would be more impressed to see people freely expressing themselves,” he said.
NGOs noted that the latest draft of the assembly law has increased the number of protestors allowed to gather without a permit in “freedom parks” from 30 to 200.
The government has also agreed to remove a clause holding demonstration organizers legally responsible for ensuring that protesters do not carry weapons, harass bystanders or infringe on their rights. A clause that required demonstrators to submit the contents of banners and flags to the government for review has also been removed.
Acknowledging the concerns of NGO workers that Phnom Penh’s “freedom park” would be tucked away in a distant suburb, Nuth Sa An said that the park in front of the National Assembly might be used.
Henrik Stenman, deputy director of the local office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, declined comment on Nuth Sa An’s comments.
Chou Vineath, an attorney at the Community Legal Education Center’s Public Interest Legal Advocacy Project, said the proposed law improves with each draft.
“There is still more work to do, such as clarifying the issue of notice versus permit, distinguishing between strikes and demonstrations and creating a definition of ‘public order,’” he added.