Newly-enacted laws have jeopardized the freedoms laid out by the Constitution and, having been widely misapplied by officials, left less than 12 percent of Cambodians surveyed confident in exercising their rights, according to an NGO report released on Thursday.
The research, conducted over a year beginning in April last year by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Adhoc and the Solidarity Center, identified 391 cases of restrictions or violations of the right to free expression, assembly or association.
“The report shows that Cambodia has a robust legal framework for the protection of fundamental freedoms, at least on paper,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the rights center. “Misapplication of laws related to fundamental freedoms is endemic.”
The research assessed whether Cambodian laws on “fundamental freedoms” met international standards, if they were properly enforced, if the country’s population understood these rights and if trade unions and civil society organizations were able to work alongside the government. It also surveyed 980 people in everyday settings such as markets and pagodas.
It found that the Constitution met international standards, but more recent legislation such as the laws on NGOs, trade unions and telecommunication contained “provisions that restrict the enjoyment and exercise of fundamental freedoms.”
These laws were also poorly implemented, the report said.
While the law on NGOs “does not require prior permission for regular NGO activities such as meetings, trainings or discussions,” government officials have sat in on, documented or shut down meetings, citing the law. The research documented 60 such cases.
Peaceful demonstrations were also repeatedly shut down by authorities asserting that groups needed permission—rather than to merely notify the government, it said.
And 82 percent of leaders of civil society organizations and trade unions reported self-censorship due to legal ambiguities or fears.
The report was intended to provide “empirical and evidence-based assessment of the state of fundamental freedoms in Cambodia” to be used as a tool for civil society and the government to improve the situation in the future, Ms. Sopheap said.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the research was merely a manipulation of facts and figures, rather than something to guide Cambodia forward.
“They manipulate,” he said. “Double-check in the law. They have that all the people have a fundamental freedom of expression, and the law very clearly [says that]. But you have to cooperate with the local authorities.”
Officials appropriately implemented the law, he added. “Cambodia is not a monkey country. We are a human country—a humane nation.”
But political analyst Lao Mong Hay said these rights had long been under attack.
“There is hardly any freedom of expression or assembly, freedom of protest,” he said, citing violent crackdowns on protests in 2014 and recent threatening rhetoric from ruling party officials.