Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong has sent a letter to the opposition CNRP demanding that it cease collecting signatures in public for a petition, a request that the CNRP and legal experts said violates the Constitution.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng said in a speech at the Interior Ministry on Wednesday that the order from City Hall to stop the opposition party’s petition to deny the government’s legitimacy after the July national election had received his blessing before being issued.
“I wish to inform Mr. president [Sam Rainsy] that in recent days, activists of the CNRP have come to collect thumbprints in every market, public place and people’s houses in the city. This in turn affects daily life and interrupts the business of the people,” the city governor said in his letter dated Tuesday.
“The Phnom Penh municipality hopes you will cooperate and implement the meaning of this letter effectively,” the governor wrote.
Asked how the municipality plans to enforce the cease and desist directive, Mr. Socheatvong said by telephone that he would warn the CNRP at least one more time before “taking action.”
“I will try to instruct [the CNRP] two or three times, but if they still continue, we will take action to stop them,” he said, declining to say what that action might look like.
“The thumbprints are useless, and they do it for political gain,” the governor said of the petition.
“I also want to use force, but I don’t. We are waiting to see if the CNRP respects our instructions or not,” Mr. Socheatvong added.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that his party would continue its efforts to collect 3 million signatures on petitions stating that the current one-party CPP government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is illegitimate and unconstitutional.
“We received the letter and it is against the Constitution,” Mr. Sovann said of the governor’s directive.
“We did nothing wrong so we will proceed with what we are doing,” he said, estimating that about 400 party activists and volunteers were working in Phnom Penh to gather signatures.
The CNRP plans to submit the petition, collected from around the country, to the U.N. on October 23 to coincide with a mass demonstration in Phnom Penh scheduled to mark the 22nd anniversary of the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.
Sok Sam Oeun, the director of free legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project, said that the directive from City Hall failed to explain how the CNRP was posing a threat to public order, and therefore had no legal basis in the laws of the land.
“[T]he people agree to thumbprint [the petition] voluntarily…. If the CNRP forces people to do this against their will, yes, maybe that violates people’s rights,” he said.
“I think that maybe City Hall is using the same style of governing…like before 1993,” Mr. Sam Oeun said, referring to Cambodia’s communist period during the 1980s when the country was under the control of Vietnam.
Huon Chundy, program manager at the Community Legal Education Center, concurred with the illegal nature of the threat to act against people collecting names on a petition.
“No law prohibits people from peacefully lobbying for support in such public places—it’s not a gathering,” Mr. Chundy said.
“We can see most of the business people disseminate leaflets of their products in public places to seek customers. They can do it without interference from anyone, including the authorities,” he added.
While the city governor and Mr. Kheng, both CPP members, are against the opposition’s efforts to collect names on a petition, a similar campaign by their own party earlier this year went largely unhindered.
In August, CPP activists petitioned citizens to endorse the victory of Mr. Hun Sen’s party in the aftermath of the contested election, drawing criticism from human rights groups that local authorities were abusing their positions to force people into supporting the disputed election results.
Mr. Kheng eventually called for the CPP’s petitioning to stop, in order to ensure the “neutrality of public officials at all levels.”
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that the CNRP’s petitioning was different from the CPP’s because the CNRP has no authority over its supporters, adding that City Hall’s actions show that the ruling party cares about public opinion, even if it refuses to listen.
“They do care and they should care [about public opinion of the government]. This is the will of the people and something they should be listening to,” he said.
A number of vendors at Phnom Penh’s Central Market said that they had been approached by CNRP activists Wednesday and obliged when asked to thumbprint the petition. However, the manager of the market said that her security team of about 100 men was actively working to keep opposition petitioners off the premises.
“We have decided that if we allow them [CNRP petitioners] to come inside they will cause problems for the businesspeople here,” said Bun Dany after security guards escorted reporters to her office.
Though a framed photograph of Mr. Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, dressed in full military fatigues, hung on one wall of her office, Ms. Dany said that her decision to keep the petition out was apolitical.
“I just want to tell you that this is a business area, and not for political issues,” she said.
Nuo Thol, a dishware vendor at the market, said she put her thumbprint on the CNRP’s petition that morning.
“The security guards did not kick the CNRP people out, but they followed them and they marked my family as a member of the opposition,” she said, adding that security guards had also told her not to endorse future petitions.
“I am scared because they hate us when they know that we support the opposition party. We just want to change the old regime and get a new one,” she said.