More than 200 protesters fighting to end the government’s almost 2-year-long ban on peaceful protests marched from Phnom Penh’s Wat Botum to Wat Phnom on Monday morning, the first government-approved march since the anti-Thai riots on Jan 29, 2003.
Though the march was aimed at highlighting the government’s quashing of the constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly, march organizers were informed Sunday of government censorship would apply to their banners.
Municipal Deputy Cabinet Chief Suon Rindy approved of some banners calling for an end to corruption and stronger donor action on government reform. But 35 banners naming prior rallies that were either banned or broken up by police were ordered removed from the march, Licadho President Kek Galabru said Monday.
Police bearing lists kept careful watch to ensure the banners shown were approved, however, when the march reached Wat Phnom, organizers unfurled the banned signs as international donors drove past on their way to the Consultative Group meeting.
Police reacted swiftly and within minutes ordered the signs taken down.
“We believe the actions of the Phnom Penh Municipality this morning, by dictating what [Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee] could and could not display in public, were unconstitutional and an abuse of power,” Kek Galabru wrote in a statement.
He also noted: “The law on Demonstrations does not give local authorities any power to dictate the contents of banners or placards during public events.”
The outlawed banners were sent in envelopes on Monday afternoon to donors attending the CG meeting.
Suon Rindy would not say why he banned some banners but said the city was justified in cracking down on demonstrations because of the damage caused by the anti-Thai riots.
“I am very disappointed because [Kek Galabru] promised not to show the banners,” he said.
In a separate incident, someone tore down posters, put up by the Students’ Movement for Democracy’s office in Tuol Kok district, which called for increased donor pressure to ensure government reform.
The Students’ Movement did not join Monday’s march, claiming the government had allowed it to look good for international donors. “Allowing the NGOs to march was to draw more aid from the donor meeting,” said Pang Sokheoun, the Movement’s director.
Posters placed in front of the organization’s office calling for the elimination of poverty, ending corruption and reducing gas prices, prompted police to ask students to go to the Toek Laak II commune police station for questioning.
The students refused and the police left without incident. But about 15 minutes later, a group of about 10 men ran up and tore down the signs. Commune police Chief Khin Vanna denied police paid the group to tear the signs down, as alleged by students.
The Constitutional Council ruled last week that the 1991 Law on Demonstrations is constitutional, though the 1993 Constitution guarantees peaceful freedom of assembly.
Amnesty International released a report on Friday recommending that the government review its demonstration policy.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Sunday that Amnesty International does not understand the law. “We offer the freedom to hold demonstrations but they need to ask permission from the local authority,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Ethan Plaut)