Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Friday warned that a union-led public forum scheduled for Freedom Park on Saturday morning would not be allowed to proceed, adding that a fresh wave of union marches next week are also banned.
The security minister’s comments came during a talk he gave to more than 3,100 police officers at the Interior Ministry compound, during which he lauded the security forces’ response to strikes and protests—which have left at least seven civilians dead and dozens wounded since September.
Mr. Kheng also handed each officer present 70,000 riel ($17.50) in cash, amounting to a total of $54,477, as a gesture of his thanks for their work in suppressing protests.
“We have to avoid this problem [protests] from happening again, so we have to gather to protect our national security, stability and protect our election result, the government and National Assembly,” Mr. Kheng told the officers.
Afterward, speaking briefly to reporters, he said the unions would only be “allowed to celebrate at [their] place.”
“And [we] won’t allow an assembly at Freedom Park or marching, because it causes concerns of public security that we have to continue strengthening more,” Mr. Kheng said.
Unions are planning to hold citywide marches from Wednesday amid calls for a higher minimum wage and the release of 21 people who were taken prisoner and jailed during strike protests in January. “It is [our] duty to keep security, but we have to avoid violence,” Mr. Kheng added.
During his speech to the police officers, Mr. Kheng also said that opposition CNRP leader Sam Rainsy was to blame for the killing of five people, who were shot dead by members of the military police on January 3 during a garment strike protest on Veng Sreng Street.
“It is because of the violence of Sam Rainsy that protests became riots and violence caused injuries to both police and military police, and some four people died.”
Of the seven people shot dead by police and military police since September, no serious investigation has been conducted nor any member of the security forces held accountable for what was flagrantly disproportionate use of deadly force by government forces.
Mr. Kheng said the more than $54,000 in cash handed to the police officers on Friday was a personal gift from him, National Police Chief General Neth Savoeun and their “associates.” He also promised the officers that there would be more cash to come if the authorities keep up their work in suppressing protest.
“[We] have prepared a little money as a gift to you, which is for 3,113 persons. Previously, I gave you 100,000 riel [$25], but today you will get 70,000 riel each. However, it is not the last time, and there will be more bonuses,” Mr. Kheng told the crowd.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has suspended the constitutional right to freedom of assembly since January 4, when police and military police backed by civil thugs armed with iron bars and sticks attacked peaceful supporters of the opposition CNRP to clear them out of Freedom Park.
Mr. Hun Sen claimed last week that his ban on protests had been lifted, though people have been assaulted and arrested this week for rallying on the streets and requests to gather at Freedom Park and elsewhere have been denied.
In spite of Mr. Kheng’s warning on Friday, Cambodian Confederation of Unions President Rong Chhun said the 18 unions planning to hold the forum at Freedom Park will proceed.
“I think it is a restriction on people’s right to freedom assembly and to express their opinions in a peaceful and non-violent manner,” he said.
“If the government uses forces to crack down on protesters, it is a violation of human rights.”
His remarks were echoed by Yang Sophorn, President of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, who said that people have a constitutional right to assemble, which Mr. Kheng could not take away.
Speaking to reporters in Phnom Penh at a separate forum on Friday, Mr. Rainsy said he and his deputy, Kem Sokha, intend to go to Freedom Park as citizens, not party leaders, on Saturday morning. “Tomorrow, I am not a leader or anything—I will just go as a guest as some unions and civil society organizations are preparing this celebration,” he said.
In anticipation of possible violence on Saturday, the U.S Embassy issued a security alert to U.S. citizens on Friday, warning them to “avoid crowds and other gatherings and to immediately leave any area where crowds are gathering.”