A UN office criticized the government for creating a climate of violence by systematically obstructing the right to free speech and assembly, following a police crackdown on striking garment workers Wednesday.
Intervention police beat and shocked workers with electric batons at Dangkao district’s Won Rex (Cambodia) garment factory to prevent about 300 demonstrators from walking to the National Assembly. Authorities had denied the workers permission to protest labor conditions.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over the strike and the government’s ban on public gatherings on unspecified national security grounds.
“In many cases where demonstrations took place without prior authorization, the authorities used excessive force to disperse them,” a statement from the UN office said Wednesday. “The unjustified restriction of freedom of assembly forms a ‘disabling’ environment for the conduct of legitimate political activity.”
Excluding rallies staged during the election campaign period, the municipality and Interior Ministry have regularly banned mass gatherings.
These included an NGO drama project to educate voters, which was planned for northern provinces in April, and a parade to celebrate World Environment Day on June 5, the UN office said.
The government did authorize the Pagoda Boys Association—a pro-Prime Minister Hun Sen group—to demonstrate in support of election results, but banned the Khmer Front Party from protesting the vote last August.
Um Sam An, former president of the Students’ Movement for Democracy, said his group is never granted permission to demonstrate against corruption or border encroachment. With no legal means to assemble, he said gatherings are squashed by police or the Pagoda Boys.
“When the municipality does not permit us to hold demonstrations, it means they can disperse us and send us to prison,” he said Thursday. “They do not want the people to explain their ideas.”
The government’s failure to uphold constitutionally protected rights will lead to more unauthorized gatherings and their potentially violent dispersal, the UN office said.
Meanwhile, a Won Rex employee filed complaints with the human rights group Adhoc on Thursday against an officer he claims unjustifiably beat him during the strike.
Ek Sopheakdey said Deputy Municipal Police Chief Seng Sovana kneed and elbowed him and beat him with a baton. An Adhoc official said his legal assistance team will file the complaint in municipal court.
National Police Deputy Director General Mao Chandara defended the force, saying electric batons are used only when police face resistance.
Workers scratched and hit officers, said Deputy Municipal Police Chief Moung Khim. The crackdown was inevitable, he said, as the ban on demonstrations is a matter of “municipal principle.”
Government human rights adviser Om Yentieng declined to comment Thursday.