PHNOM PENH —
A Phnom Penh resident, Khem Sreymom, 37, recalls joining protests at Freedom Park, an area in the center of the capital that was once designated as a place for free expression.
Coming to Freedom Park, situated near the U.S. Embassy in the capital’s Daun Penh district, in the morning, Sreymom told VOA Khmer that she was “not a victim, but as a citizen of the country, we have to jointly solve social and national issues.”
“I want Freedom Park to stay at the same location, in downtown,” she said, further explaining that protests held in the area, home to numerous foreign embassies and national institutions, could be heard by the government.
City Hall has begun construction of a new Freedom Park along the Tonle Sap river, about five kilometers from the original square, which became the focus of opposition protests in the aftermath of the disputed 2013 election. The new square is expected to open in the next three months.
Mao Chhorn, 35, a resident from Kandal province, said that he came to Freedom Park several times, including to the opposition protests.
“I don’t support moving the park. I am not satisfied,” he said. He is concerned whether the protesters will still be able to submit petitions to the government if the new location is far from the city center.
“The freedom of expression and assembly is even stricter,” he added.
In July 2014, violence between opposition protesters and district security guards erupted at the square, leading to the arrest of several opposition officials, activists and lawmakers, who were later handed lengthy prison sentences for “insurrection”.
Freedom Park had been closed since January 4, 2014, after the authorities destroyed the opposition’s protest camp.
However, after the the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party reached a political agreement on July 22 of that year, the square was reopened. However, the large protests previously seen at the square were no more.
Opened in November 2010, Freedom Park, has since become a volleyball pitch, provided shelter for homeless people, a parking lot and makeshift car showroom.
Meth Measpheakdey, a City Hall spokesman, said the new site would be named Freedom Garden, and would comprise parking lots, gardens, restrooms and a stage which will be used both for public events and protests.
The 1.3-hectare Freedom Garden, according to the spokesman, is half a hectare larger than Freedom Park, which can hold thousands of protesters.
Measpheakdey added that residents living near Freedom Park had complained to authorities about the noise from protests.
“We are thinking about how to ensure that there is a location for expressing opinion, but not affecting other residents living nearby. We already thought about that and that is why we found the most suitable place,” he explained.
The spokesman hopes there will be no protests at Freedom Garden, which could potentially block a major arterial road into the capital.
Suon Chakriya, 30, who owns a car showroom near Freedom Park, said that the series of government crackdowns on the opposition protests after the 2013 elections affected her business, meaning she could not open the shop for two weeks
“I want it to be moved. When there is a crackdown, it normally affects my business,” she said.
Another resident living near Freedom Park, street vendor Hor Chhorvy, 62, remembered her family’s concerns about safety when there were protests and crackdowns in 2014.
“I am not against the government…it affects my business but it is fine if it [Freedom Park] is still here. I can bear it since it is not an everyday occurrence,” she said.
The city will develop the current location into gardens and a performance stage for the disabled, as requested by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said that the current site is “moderately good” due to its central location in the city. She added that the new location is not in accordance with the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, under which government has to ensure a good site for people to express opinions.
“The new Freedom Park is far from downtown and causes difficulties for people in expressing opinions due to its far location. I think the intention of moving is contradictory to the law,” she said.
Article 28 of the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations states that each capital and province shall create a “Freedom Park” by choosing an appropriate place where the general public can easily gather.
“The democratic space is shrinking,” Sopheap added.
Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the message that demonstrators wish to convey should be seen and heard by the powerful.
“Moving Freedom Park to a location far from their [protester’s] target audience, resulting in a loss in the expressive value of assemblies, would therefore clearly impede the exercise of these fundamental rights,” she said in an email to VOA Khmer.
“On the other hand, if the government guarantees these rights by allowing people to express themselves through assemblies in other public places, in the streets, etc, the movement of Freedom Park would be less problematic,” she added.
In a speech in December, Hun Sen said that the use of Freedom Park as a protest site was bad for business and caused public disorder.
“It’s a commercial, diplomatic, and tourism area ... so don’t mess up this area,” he said, adding that people would still be able to watch the protests on social media websites such as Facebook.
Yim Sovann, a CNRP spokesman, said that the party does not support moving of the square.
“At the old Freedom Park, some state institutions did not hear people’s protests. They don’t care. Let alone, it is far from people’s eyes, will they [government] take care or ignore the solutions for people,” he said.
Sreymom said she would not use the new Freedom Park but would rather protest directly at the headquarters of relevant state institutions
“I think when there is a problem; people can go directly to the National Assembly. There’s no need to go to the new Freedom Park, which is very far away,” she said.