Some 2,000 police officers in full riot gear carried out demonstration-suppression drills at Olympic Stadium on Thursday, ahead of a scheduled forum hosted by labor unions at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Saturday.
The U.N. special rapporteur to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, also released a statement Thursday welcoming Mr. Hun Sen’s touted lifting of the ban on the constitutional right to free assembly, despite a number of public gatherings having since been violently quashed this week and other rallies denied permission.
“I was pleased to learn that, in a speech delivered on 25 February, Prime Minister Hun Sen stated that the ban would be lifted,” Mr. Subedi said in the statement.
Despite the Prime Minister’s announcement and the Ministry of Interior conceding that his statement trumped its ban on public gatherings, the unions who plan to gather at Freedom Park on Saturday have had their request to hold the forum rejected by City Hall.
Also since the apparent lifting of the ban, a group calling for 21 jailed activists to be freed was violently dispersed this week and had their ceremonial drum confiscated.
Mr. Subedi acknowledged the apparent flexibility of the ban in his letter and urged the government to refrain from again breaching the human rights of its citizens, as happened on January 4, when district security guards and civilian armed with clubs and iron bars stormed Freedom Park to remove protesters.
“I am concerned that some demonstrations continue to be blocked…. I look forward to seeing the ban lift effectively adopted so that free expression and peaceful assembly could once again be exercised, not as a State discretion but as a human right,” Mr. Subedi said.
Brigadier General Keng Tito, spokesman for the military police, which ringed Freedom Park when it was violently dispersed in January, said Thursday that the protest-suppression drills were in no way related to Saturday’s forum, nor were they intended to intimidate workers.
“It is normal that our forces do exercise so that they can implement their duties effectively in the battlefield. It is not threatening to the workers,” he said.
General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, which has rejected the unions’ proposal for the forum on Saturday, remained noncommittal when asked about possibility violence being used against the unions on Saturday.
“Like I have said before, the unions are allowed to hold the forums at their offices,” he said, declining to comment further.
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim and Ben Sokhean)