Phnom Penh City Hall made good on its promise to stop a set of planned protest marches Tuesday against a draft law aiming to regulate the country’s NGOs, deploying hundreds of security guards and police around the capital to stop the demonstrators in their tracks.
Hundreds of NGO workers, unionists and activists were planning to converge on the National Assembly from four separate locations to ask lawmakers not to pass the law, despite a threat from the municipality to use “any means” to stop them.
City Hall said any march would be illegal because the organizers had failed to ask for permission. And as promised, it deployed hundreds of government security guards and police wielding shields and batons to each of the four locations where the demonstrators gathered Tuesday morning.
“We tried to tell them not to hold an illegal rally because the law is still under discussion and consultation, so they should not protest because the law is not a law yet,” said City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche.
At the 7 Makara Skybridge on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard, about 200 protesters pushed their way past the first line of security and managed to march about a kilometer toward the city center, but were stopped by a makeshift barricade of police motorcycles. Some of the marchers had their protest banners confiscated.
“These aren’t Cambodian forces…. Their act to block our peaceful rally is unacceptable because they stopped us from voicing our concerns,” said Ouk Pich Samnang, one of the protesters.
“We just want to express our opinions against the NGO law because it will severely restrict the freedom of human beings and rights workers,” he said.
Should the draft become law, said Ou Tepphallin, deputy head of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, “Cambodia will no longer be a democratic country.”
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said authorities detained two protesters who were preparing to march from Meanchey district and took them to the district police station, but later let them go.
Though prevented from marching, about 200 of the protesters regrouped in front of the National Assembly later in the morning, once authorities removed barricades set up around the compound at the end of the morning’s plenary session.
Undeterred by the police clampdown, Mr. Sam Ath said opponents of the NGO law would keep protesting against the legislation until it was withdrawn from parliament or amended to their satisfaction.
“We will continue to agitate like the drizzling rain even if the law is passed until it is amended,” he said. “If it is not changed, the National Assembly does not have to pass the law because it violates the people’s rights and contradicts the Constitution.”
The law would require all NGOs and associations in the country to register with the government in order to keep operating and to file annual reports on their finances and activities. It would also give the executive branch the power to shut them down. Critics fear that overly vague and broad provisions will give the government undue powers to silence its critics.
Lawmakers are scheduled to meet with NGOs at the National Assembly on July 10 to discuss the draft.