In a reminder to all provincial governments, the Interior Ministry has called for the creation of “freedom parks” where people can hold demonstrations, a move some rights groups fear could do more to stem their freedoms than to bolster them.
“We have called on all the provinces and the cities to set up a place for the people to demonstrate and express what they are unhappy with,” ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said yesterday.
While the law on public assembly adopted last year allows for only 200 people to protest at a time in the freedom parks, Mr Sopheak said local authorities could permit larger demonstrations at their discretion.
“The law said 200, but if you put 300 it doesn’t matter,” he said.
He said the instructions to provincial governors had been issued once already but declined to say whether the government had given local authorities either a deadline or any other parameters for setting up the sites.
The news came less than two months after Phnom Penh officials announced plans to locate the capital’s own demonstration site just south of the US Embassy in Daun Penh district.
Under Cambodia’s new demonstration law, adopted by the National Assembly last October, up to 200 people can gather at the parks so long as they give local authorities 12-hours notice. Organizers planning larger protests must apply further in advance and furnish authorities with details on exactly where they plan to rally and how many people they expect.
The government has sold the parks as a tool for citizens to voice their concerns, but local rights groups fear both the parks and the demonstration law could end up gagging them.
Chan Soveth, chief monitor for the human rights organization Adhoc, said the parks were a good idea in principle. “But they do not so completely obey the right to expression and the right to assembly,” he added.
He said he believed removing demonstrators from the source of their ire, be it a far-off factory or the National Assembly, will dilute their voice.
“If people want to demonstrate in front of a factory, they should be allowed to demonstrate in front of the factory,” he said.
With a park set aside for protests in every province, Mr Soveth also worries that authorities could use it as a pretext to deny Cambodians outside the capital permission to protest in Phnom Penh.
“If people are blocked from coming to Phnom Penh, this is a human rights violation already,” he said.
Rupert Abbott, development director at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, called the parks a good idea “in the abstract.” But in the current context “amid the crackdown on the freedom of expression, there are concerns,” he said.
Despite some positive dialogue with foreign donors and non-government groups, Mr Abbot said, “the government needs to give some public guidance and assurance that the parks will not be used to exclude protests elsewhere.”
And like Mr Soveth, he worried the government might use the existence of designated demonstration sites in the provinces as grounds for shutting protesters out of the capital.
“On a practical level, if people aren’t allowed to protest in Phnom Penh, where the politicians and the lawmakers are, there is a concern that they won’t be heard by the people in a position to address their concerns,” he said.
Mr Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman, assured that the existence of the “freedom parks” would not bar protesters from rallying elsewhere.
“They can still hold the demonstrations wherever they want,” he said.
Kompong Thom provincial governor Chhun Chhorn welcomed the idea of setting up freedom parks around the country but questioned where the money to set up the parks would come from.
“It is good for people to have a place to raise their voice,” said Chhun Chhorn, governor of Kompong Thom province. “The problem is that we don’t have land now and the provincial authority cannot afford [to buy] land.”