Phnom Penh Municipality has banned demonstrations until after the scheduled July 26 elections in order to “maintain good security, public order and a good atmosphere of neutral politics.”
An independent observer on Monday called such a temporary ban a “serious infringement” of the constitutional right for Cambodians to hold non-violent demonstrations.
The suspension, issued late last week as a municipal “announcement,” would most likely affect opposition candidate Sam Rainsy, who frequently organizes demonstrations.
Sam Rainsy said Monday he will go ahead with a political demonstration planned for Sunday regardless of whether he has permission. This temporary ban is a “suppression of a fundamental freedom and it makes the election look less than free and fair,” he said.
Chief of Cabinet Mann Chhoeun issued the municipal announcement to suspend demonstrations on Friday. It was to take effect immediately.
Mann Chhoeun said Monday that the announcement was in accordance with an order from the Ministry of Interior to maintain a good atmosphere leading up to the polls. “We do not want any disturbance during the elections,” he said.
Chea Sophara, Phnom Penh’s first deputy governor, also noted the difficulty in protecting demonstrators.
But by Monday afternoon, Mann Chhoeun was backpedaling. “This is a plea. It is not an absolute ban,” he said. “If we do [order a ban], we are afraid violence would arise.”
Prum Sokha, chief of administration of the Ministry of Interior, said that it was the municipality’s idea to temporarily ban demonstrations.
He said the ministry agreed in principle to the ban because “some party leaders take the opportunity of holding a demonstration that resembles campaigning.”
He said the government is not restraining the right to protest. “If they [Cambodians] are unhappy with something, then they should file a complaint to a competent authority directly rather than holding a demonstration,” he said.
Prum Sokha added that a temporary ban on demonstrations shouldn’t conflict with the electoral right for parties to assemble. National Election Committee officials weren’t immediately available for comment on Monday.
Sam Rainsy said the demonstration planned for Sunday “is precisely on the issue of asking for free and fair elections and pointing out the shortcomings of the current electoral process.”
He said he expects 10,000 people, including some who he claimed have been excluded from the right to register to vote. Sam Rainsy said he hadn’t yet been given official permission for the demonstration, which is scheduled to start at 8 am at Olympic Stadium. But “if they say no, we’ll go ahead [anyway] and will ask for UN observers.”
Peter Schier, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a German non-profit organization that promotes democracy, said that in his view a ban on demonstrations would violate Article 37 of the Constitution giving Cambodian citizens a right to strike and demonstrate in a non-violent manner.
“I think this is a serious infringement of the constitutional rights,” he said.
Schier also raised the question of whether this would mean that Buddhist monks also would not be able to demonstrate for peace. “If people were planning to stage a non-violent demonstration…I think that would be good for free and fair elections.”
He said it would be much better to decide whether to allow a demonstration on a case-by-case basis determined by the likelihood of violence.