The government can’t seem to agree on whether or not Prime Minister Hun Sen has lifted the ban on the constitutional right to freedom of assembly.
Last week, Mr. Hun Sen said in a speech: “I will not prevent [demonstrations] because everyone has equal rights,” which government officials quickly interpreted, in theory, as the lifting of the ban on public gatherings, imposed by the Ministry of Interior on January 4.
In practice, however, no one seems to be listening.
Three former residents of the Boeng Kak lake community were detained Wednesday outside City Hall, where they had parked a tuk-tuk mounted with loudspeakers to call for Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong to provide additional compensation for the loss of their homes through forced eviction.
Daun Penh district’s civilian security guards, the city’s extra-legal but officially designated demonstration busters, grabbed the three—Im Srey Touch, 40, Sea Nareth, 56, Sath Tha, 40,—and dragged them into a waiting truck, which whisked them to the municipal police headquarters where they were detained for several hours.
On Monday, the security guards were also at work, forcefully shoving aside female protesters to confiscate a ceremonial drum that was being played at a police roadblock on Sisowath Quay.
The municipality has also twice this week rejected requests to hold public gatherings in Freedom Park: the first by a group of 18 labor unions and associations, who are planning a nationwide labor strike calling for a $160 minimum wage, and, the second, by well-known radio station owner Mam Sonando.
Mr. Sonando sent a letter to City Hall on Monday asking to hold a demonstration on March 31 and notifying them that 200 people were expected to join the rally to support his call for a television station license.
“[Mr. Hun Sen’s] comments meant the protest ban has been lifted, so my requested protest shall be allowed,” Mr. Sonando.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche disagreed.
“Soon, we will invite Mam Sonando for a meeting and we will coordinate with him not to protest in order to maintain good security,” Mr. Dimanche said.
The 2009 Law on Peaceful Assembly states that rally organizers must notify authorities of their intentions to gather five days in advance of a planned protest, but do not need express permission from authorities to proceed.
The government has repeatedly cited security concerns for its refusal to allow demonstrations in Freedom Park, despite the fact that every protest in the park since July’s disputed election has remained peaceful.
The only violence has come from district security guards and plainclothes men who wielded batons and metal bars as they cleared the park of opposition supporters on January 4.
Mr. Dimanche said that the three women who were detained Wednesday in front of his office were held because they were damaging public order. He also claimed that they had tried to block the road as they crossed the street next to City Hall.
“If they want to hold demonstrations, they have to ask for permission from City Hall,” he said.
Mr. Dimanche also claimed Wednesday that the suspension of the constitutional right to assemble did not amount to a ban on demonstrations.
“In fact, there is no protest ban,” he said, explaining that the Ministry of Interior had simply issued a directive for the suspension of demonstrations.
One of the three protesters detained, Ms. Srey Touch, who was released Wednesday afternoon, said she was confused by the doublespeak coming from the government.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the removal of the [demonstration] ban but authorities are still keeping it in place,” she said.
“They turn a deaf ear to the prime minister and his order is pointless. Or maybe it was just [Mr. Hun Sen] pretending in order to show the world that the government respects human rights.”
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said that Mr. Hun Sen’s speech did indeed trump the ministry’s ban on demonstrations, but that the Ministry of Interior had still denied a request by labor unions, submitted on February 26, to hold the public forum in Freedom Park on Saturday.
“They [unions] cannot cause disorder, and the law on the peaceful demonstration is still in effect,” Gen. Sopheak said.
The Law on Peaceful Assembly states that demonstrations shall not be used to affect “the rights, freedoms, and honor of others, good customs of the national society, public order and national security.”
Mr. Sopheak claimed that the unions’ public forum, in which officials from the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP have been invited to address an estimated 30,000 workers, might interfere with ongoing electoral reform talks between the parties.
“We expect that this public forum was more or less motivated by politics,” Mr. Sopheak said.
“So, in order to make the atmosphere good for the working group of the two parties, the public forum should be at their own offices.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)