Citizens defied a ban from City Hall and marched through Phnom Penh on Thursday to mark International Human Rights Day, which passed with no violence as authorities peacefully shunted the demonstrators around the city.
Groups of activists, monks and students numbering in the hundreds set off from the Senate in the south, Doem Kor market in the west and the Chroy Changva bridges in the north, converging first at the offices of the Council of Development for Cambodia (CDC) to submit a petition calling for an end to land grabbing.
“We came here to demand our rights because of the injustice and violations of human rights that we see, including the issue of encroaching on land,” Chao Kin, a 28-year-old monk, said outside the CDC compound. “Our democracy is still immature and weak, so we have to struggle and fight for it.”
The protesters then marched south toward the Justice Ministry, but were stopped just short of their goal by a detachment of police in full riot gear. About an hour later, a second group of marchers streamed down Street 240 from the west, effectively surrounding the officers and leading them to pull their line back, allowing both groups to reach the ministry.
Lay Visai, an assistant to Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana, received their petition, which, among other things, asked for the release of unionists and rights advocates.
As the midday sun became unbearable, the marchers dispersed for lunch—a peaceful end to the day’s events.
However, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said punishment could be in order for those who had encouraged the demonstrations.
“We know that the idea of the organizers or people behind this was to make conflict…. They want confrontation between authorities and participants,” he said.
“We will check…the law to see what we should do about this.”
On Koh Pich island, the government celebrated Human Rights Day differently, with young people in matching shirts piling into the Koh Pich theater to listen to speeches by Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong.
Mr. An urged the attendees to think back to the Pol Pot era, claiming that human rights only arrived in Cambodia when a coalition of defectors and Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge.
“No countries, no human rights organizations came to help the Khmer people. It was only the Cambodian People’s Party that created the Cambodian National Liberation Front on December 2, 1978, to liberate the nation from the cruel genocide,” he said.
When Mr. Socheatvong took the stage, he said the country’s 5,000 NGOs, 322 media outlets, 108 magazines, 17 television networks and 44 newspapers were proof that freedom of expression was strong in Cambodia.
“We have restored the image of the country again by succeeding on January 7  over the Pol Pot regime and changing the living standards of the people by providing freedom in every public area,” he said.