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Assembly Debates Law on Demonstrations

The National Assembly on Wednesday began debate on a draft law for demonstrations that critics warn marks another restriction on fundamental freedoms.

The legislative body passed a national penal code this week that included provisions making defamation a criminal act.

However, Khuon Sodary, a Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker and head of the Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, said the demonstration law could “prevent violence,” including armed conflict.

In fact, police often bar demonstrations counter to government interests on grounds of maintaining stability.

The draft law on demonstrations, 30 articles long, updates a 1991 law that proponents say is not equipped to handle the current democratic climate of Cambodia.

“This law is very important for the freedoms of expressions and assembly,” Khuon Sodary said. “This law provides real will in demonstrations to protest dislikes and disagreements over something. This law does not want that demonstrations become explosions of weapons and violence.”

In the Assembly session Nuth Sa An, secretary of state for the Ministry of Interior, said “peaceful demonstrations” were a necessity to “protect the rights and freedom of expression through demonstration.”

However, he said, “in exercising rights and freedoms, everyone must be within the limit of the law.”

“The restriction of rights and freedoms is to respect the rights and honor of others, as well as to defend national security, public order, health and public morals,” he said.

Opponents of the draft say it does not clarify definitions relating to national security, public order, health and public morality, the bases authorities currently use to prohibit demonstrations.

“We do not support this draft as long as it does not clarify these…definitions,” said Yim Sovann, spokesman for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

Human Rights Party President Kem Sokha said the law would allow authorities to bar demonstrations “just like in the past.”

Other practicalities of the law need revision, said Thun Saray, director of the rights group Adhoc.

“We request that the National Assembly not limit the number of demonstrators,” he said. “If we limit the number of participants, it is not good.”