Scant Evidence of Freedom Parks Across Country

In Kompong Speu province last week, demonstrators gathered in front of the provincial courthouse to demand the release of a prisoner who had been charged with illegally occupying land belonging to a soldier.

Widespread censure from government and rights groups followed after it transpired that the group was surrounded by 40 armed soldiers who threatened to shoot if they didn’t disperse.

Last month in Kratie, four villagers were shot by security guards armed with AK-47 assault rifles while protesting a land dispute.

Demonstrations and protests are nothing new. Across the country, more than 250 protests occurred last year. All varied in their scope and intensity but nearly every protest had one thing in common: Contrary to the law, they did not take place in freedom parks.

Established in 2009, the Law on Public Assembly and Peaceful Demonstration stipulates that every province and municipality install a dedicated space for protests to take place.

Phnom Penh is the only municipality that has complied thus far.  Ostensibly intended to create a safe venue for demonstrations, opinion has been divided as to the parks’ effectiveness and true purpose. But what has rapidly become clear in the Phnom Penh experiment is that people are not keen on using them.

“There have been just 20 protests staged at the demonstration venue [since its establishment in Nov 2010],” said Chan Soveth, deputy head of monitoring at the rights group Adhoc. That number represents a scant fraction of the 152 demonstrations the capital saw last year.

“The reality is that [protesting] villagers are not interested in staging protests at the designated freedom park,” Mr. Soveth said, noting that such spaces take away the chance for protesters to speak directly to the involved ministries or offices.

“It is less popular because protesters hold protests in order to put pressure on government officials and to resolve the conflicts they face… [but] the existing freedom park is isolated and far from key government institutions. That is why the park is not popular for protesters,” he said.

Authorities from several provinces with a high volume of protests spoke yesterday of logistical and financial obstacles to setting up the freedom parks. However, most said that they were in support of such locations and optimistic that they could cut down on violence while giving villagers a viable way to voice their concerns at the same time.

“When the freedom park is built, it will give a lot of benefits for the protesters and they can exercise their rights to demonstrate; it can reduce their expenditure for the cost of traveling to Phnom Penh to stage demonstrations there,” said Kratie Provincial Governor Kham Phoeun. “Authorities will have an easier time controlling security and public order.”

Mr. Phoeun said that authorities have been struggling to find a suitable location, but he stressed that he considered building a freedom park a high priority.

Kompong Thom Provincial Governor Chhun Chhorn echoed those words.

“We have faced difficulty in finding a place in the provincial town and near the provincial hall because the land is quite expensive,” he said. “Furthermore, I don’t know where the money will come from to cover the cost of construction because the national level has provided no information on the cost of it.”

In Kompong Speu province an unofficial freedom park has been in use since early 2011, said the provincial governor Kang Heang. Located about one kilometer away from provincial government buildings in Chbar Mon city, the park meets few of the law’s regulations, which state that it must be in a location that “the general public can easily see and hear.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is less than popular.

“Regretfully, there has not been even one protest staged at the designated demonstration park,” said Mr. Heang, adding that protesters and strikers prefer to hold demonstrations in front of the courthouse or associated ministries.

Rights workers feel that whether or not the government goes ahead and builds the freedom parks, protestors are likely to ignore them.

“The government must set up offices at the park to accept complaints, otherwise the protesters will still have to walk from freedom park to the associated ministry to file their complaints,” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for Licadho.

“Phnom Penh should be an example,” he added, pointing out how infrequently patronized it had become. “The park must be built somewhere before the eyes of the public.”

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