National Assembly Passes Demonstration Law Limiting Demonstrations

All protests in Cambodia will soon be restricted to crowds of few­er than 200 people gathering in specially designated zones during daylight hours only, after the National As­sembly approved a law on peaceful demonstrations yesterday.

After three days of debate, the law was approved by affirmative votes from 76 out of 101 lawmakers present yesterday.

SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that his party’s members did not vote in favor of the law and that it was pushed through by lawmakers from the CPP, Funcinpec and the NRP.

During debate yesterday, SRP President Sam Rainsy said that his party could not support the law because it severely constrains freedom of assembly. “It has the will for the authorities to ban the people from doing non-violent demonstrations,” he said. “We do not want to eliminate dem­onstrations; we have to eliminate what pushes the people to demonstrate in the first place.”

The legislation covers, “the gatherings or marches by a group of peo­ple to demand or express in public their ideas or the will of their group by using posters or other methods of nonviolence.”

The law restricts protests to crowds of fewer than 200 people, and requires at least three representatives of the demonstrators to register their identification cards with local authorities at least five days before a protest is planned. Demonstrations will only be al­lowed in specific areas designated by officials, and won’t be permitted between 6 pm and 6 am.

Nuth Sa An, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry and government representative to the Assem­bly, said the restrictions will come into effect in the next six months.

Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Tea­chers’ Association, said the law threatens freedom of expression in Cambodia.

“They will use police to break up demonstrators if we gather more than 200 people. The freedom of expression here is zero,” he said by telephone.

The nuances of the law are just as worrying as the large-scale implications, according to Ou Virak, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights. He pointed in particular to restrictions on demonstrations held on private property.

“When you want to hold a protest on private property, you have to inform the authorities 12 hours before,” Mr Virak said. “That’s go­ing to be a major danger.”

He added that the requirement of seeking approval with provincial authorities before a protest could be a serious restriction for activists in rural areas.

“That’s actually scary to me,” Mr Virak said, explaining that the previous legislations allowed demonstrators to register their intentions at their commune offices. “In the case of Ratanakkiri, [the provincial of­fice] can be very far.”

Although the idea of a “freedom park” set aside specifically for demonstrations holds some appeal, Mr Virak said, “The time limit is going to undermine the effect…. I think the authorities should be responsible to have police on standby for spontaneous protests.”

Approval of the law without wide public distribution of the draft or substantial input from members of the public irked some members of the NGO sector, who said yesterday that this term of the Assembly has seen a decrease in transparency.

“What can we say?” asked Naly Pilorge, president of rights group Licadho. “I can only say that contrary to our Constitution and what is said in Cambodia, this law has not been made public, and there has been no time to get input from civil society.”

She said that the lack of consultation is a trend she’s noticed since the ruling CPP was given a strengthened mandate in the July 2008 election.

“For the past year, most laws have been very secretive,” Ms Pilorge said. “Even at the National Assembly, there are restrictions from anyone even observing discussion about laws.”

The Assembly recently put in place restrictions that require potential visitors to parliament to submit official requests before being allowed into the public gallery.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, agreed that the process of drafting and approving legislation has become increasingly inaccessible.

“We found out that there’s a lack of consultation with stakeholders on this law…. It’s been this mandate. Many stakeholders are finding it difficult to get access to the discussion debate.”

However, the road to approval of the demonstration law did mark a rare departure from the status quo for the Assembly, which granted an SRP request in 2008 to return the draft law to the Interior Ministry for revision.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said yesterday by telephone that he was proud of the law. “This law will prevent violent demonstrations and encourage non-violent demonstrations,” he said.

He added that, “If the opposition is elected, they can make amendments [to the law].”

 

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