The Phnom Penh municipality denied a demonstration permit for the monk Maha Ghosananda and the Dhammayietra Pilgrimmage for Peace recently, a participant in the nationwide walk said.
Maha Ghosananda and at least 10 monks are currently on a 47-day, 651-km walk through the country, which is scheduled to pass through Phnom Penh on May 11, yet city officials allegedly refused to grant the monks formal permission to walk and gather at the city’s Wat Oth Taravatey.
“The city told us that we would cause too many disturbances with traffic and that people would confuse us for election campaigners,” said one of the followers, reached by telephone last week.
City officials could not be reached for comment Monday. But Mao Chandara, general staff of the National Police, said last week that sometimes “the demonstrators cause traffic jams, and we send police to the demonstration to facilitate traffic.”
In light of the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots and previous elections, the government may be wary of demonstrations surrounding the upcoming July national elections, critics said last week.
After the 1998 national election, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demonstrate against the election results. Originally sparked by members of the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec, the protests lasted weeks and claimed at least one life and injured countless people.
“During the 1998 election…the ruling party needed a strong force to calm the demonstrators,” said Center for Social Development President Chea Vannath.
On Jan 22—one week before the anti-Thai riots—the government presented its plan for ensuring security during the elections. National Police Director-General Hok Lundy said officials must guard against those who would whip up support for demonstrations, riots and strikes that could discourage people from voting.
The government may also use January’s anti-Thai riots as justification for prohibiting demonstrations after upcoming elections.
“I think the Jan 29 riots will place limitations on the freedom to peacefully assemble,” said one analyst. “The government may be afraid that another riot like [the anti-Thai] riots will occur in Phnom Penh, so they will try to stop them.”
Police officials dispute these claims, saying that all Cambodians have the right to assemble as long as they do it peacefully.
“The riot police are ready to crack down on demonstrations that can cause violence and social instability,” Mao Chandara said. “But if [potential demonstrators] ask for permission before they hold the demonstration, we can protect their security.”
But in February, a coalition of unions and student groups called off a planned anti-Hun Sen demonstration after more than 200 members of the pro-government Pagoda Boys group gathered near where the coalition was holding a planning meeting.
Pagoda Boys Secretary-General Yi Mao said the anti-Hun Sen protest would have been a “bad idea.” Phuong Mountry, spokesman for the Free Trade Union of Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said at the time that the protest was called off for fear of violent clashes.
While some have said the post-election period could be a difficult time for protests, labor activists and union groups say the pre-election period could be a good time to demonstrate.
“Before the election, the [authorities] never interrupt our strikes because they want votes from the workers,” said Chhorn Sokha, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers.
Phuong Mountry said last week that workers can easily demonstrate right now. On April 3, for example, he said the Free Trade Union held a demonstration at the B and N Factory in Phnom Penh without permission from the municipality.
“I was afraid at first that the police officers would crack down on our strike, but they just stood there and ignored it,” he said. “Before, those police would have chased and beat the workers.”
“I think this is a CPP strategy to gain votes from workers,” Phuong Mountry said.