The Cambodian Confederation of Unions is requesting that the National Assembly amend a new draft law on demonstrations, that would cap the number of protesters allowed in a demonstration at 200 and permit local authorities to dictate the rally’s location.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association and the CCU, said the opposition-affiliated confederation of unions wants to see articles 14 and 28 deleted from the draft law before lawmakers move to ratify the legislation into law. He said that the two articles that limit the number of participants and determine the demonstration’s setting are simply a means to curtail the people’s freedom of speech and the right to protest.
“If the government approves the draft law it means that the law will serve only the powerful people’s interests and not [the ordinary] people,” he said by telephone Thursday, calling the law an affront to the Constitution.
Mr Rong Chhun said the labor organization had sent a letter to the National Assembly requesting the removal of the articles, and that the union will not give up its efforts until the legislation is altered.
In February 2008 an older version of the draft law was sent back to the Council of Ministers for revision after SRP lawmakers took issue with a controversial article that stated organizers of a demonstration would be held legally responsible for any damages to property committed by participants of a protest. The move by the Assembly to send it back to the government represented a rare event, as most legislation easily passes without amendment once it reaches the Assembly floor for a vote.
Sok Saroeurn, chief of the legislation council at the Interior Ministry, said the articles are not designed to restrict freedoms but to maintain security and protect the general public. He said that by curbing the number of participants at demonstrations, the law ensures that marches will not grow unruly, while still allowing individuals to express themselves. Without that provision, he said, the country could experience the same violent rallies Thailand endured in recent weeks.
“If we allow all protesters to do whatever they want, there would be violence toward other people’s freedom, life and right to work, etc,” he claimed, adding that keeping people in one location would also help guarantee public safety.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap called the union’s request unreasonable and said the idea is selfish since it does not take into account the need for “social order.”
“People have freedom, but under the Constitution they cannot do anything violent to anyone,” he said.
Mr Rong Chhun said that maintaining social order was nothing more than an excuse by the government. In fact, he said law enforcement authorities are responsible for the majority of violence at demonstrations when they move to break up peaceful gatherings.
Mr Sok Saroeurn said he already had sent the law’s documents to the Council of Ministers, which will once again have the opportunity to vote on the law and send it back to the National Assembly for ratification.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said he was not familiar with the draft law and could not comment on Thursday.
SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said he supported the CCU’s efforts and would advocate the changes. He said that the number of protesters should not be limited, since the size of a demonstration illustrates the strength of the movement behind it.
Dictating the location of a protest would also make it less effective, as the target of the demonstration might never see or hear the protester’s message, he said.
“This draft law is similar to creating an absolute regime if it is not changed,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Frank Radosevich)