The government on Monday announced the launch of public handbooks outlining the rights of demonstrators under a new law passed late last year.
The handbook, which was sponsored by USAID, seeks to prevent legal conflict for protesters following the December 2009 passage of a controversial demonstration law.
Demonstrations in Cambodia sometimes lead to injuries among participants, who clash with armed security forces over issues such as land rights and labor conditions.
Some 200 officials, including provincial leaders, police and military police, as well as non-governmental organizations, took part in the announcement Monday.
Critics say the demonstration law, which restricts non-sanctioned gatherings to under 200 people, is too strict and reduces basic constitutional freedoms and that it does not clarify what issues relate to “national security, public order, health and public morality,” key provisions in the law.
However, officials said Monday that in exercising their rights, people must stay within the law.
“If there are 200 demonstrators, the demonstration leader must inform the local authorities, but doesn’t have to wait for a response,” Interior Minister Sar Kheng told participants Monday. “If there are more than 200 demonstrators, the demonstration leader should inform the authorities of the road of the march and the time of the march.”
This is to ensure security officials can keep public safety, he said.
“We are not banning freedom of expression,” he said. “We are promoting democracy and respect the freedom of expression by the people. If the demonstration has 50,000 to 100,000 people without informing the local authorities and the government, Cambodia may not advance to that point yet.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, said Sar Kheng’s comments did not reflect the letter of the law. “I think continued discussion is meaningless,” he said.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the law must be explained to authorities because points on public order and security are unclear.
“If the authorities are strict in implementing the demonstration law, the demonstration and demonstration leaders will suffer from this law,” Chan Saveth, an investigator for the rights group Adhoc, said. “We are very worried for the restriction of the freedom of expression.”