WASHINGTON DC —
Security forces blocked a group of demonstrators on the road near the US Embassy as they attempted a march on Wednesday, but no clashes were reported.
The demonstrators, who are calling for the release of 19 jailed land activists, were trying to occupy Freedom Park, a designated site for public assembly when they were stopped by security personnel.
“I don’t know what the authorities think about the protest, but our goal is to demand the solution and justice for the detainees,” said demonstrator Chhum Ngan, from the Borei Keila neighborhood of Phnom Penh, where many families were forcibly evicted to make way for a development project. “The authorities have always banned us; like yesterday, City Hall did not allow us to demonstrate. That makes us really lose hope with the authorities, as they restrict our freedom.”
About 100 activists from various communities in Phnom Penh took part in Wednesday’s march, gathering near the US Embassy and planning to walk to Freedom Park. Police stopped them at various points along the way, including with barricades at nearby Wat Phnom, a city landmark.
“They said they would not allow a protest in public places,” said Sea Nareth, a protester from the Boeung Kak neighborhood, which saw thousands of families evicted since 2008. “We were sitting there, but no one came out to solve the problem.”
Demonstrators want the release of 19 people who were arrested during protests last year, including Tep Vanny, a prominent activist, and Meach Sovannara, a member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.
City spokesman Long Dimanche said the protest was not allowed because they had not obtained a permit and have been trying for a month-long demonstration at Freedom Park. “There is no law that requires us to allow a consecutive demonstration for a month, or a sit-in demonstration that is as anarchic as this,” he said. Besides, he said, their demands are impossible to meet: the city cannot intervene in the detention. “The case is in the court’s hands,” he said.
However, Sia Phirum, secretariat director for the Housing Rights Task Force, said police prevented a peaceful assembly, which violates fundamental rights of expression. The 19 people are meanwhile detained for protesting “because their homes are flooded.”
“Like this morning, they voiced expression at this place, Freedom Park, and they were not allowed,” he said. “And that is seen as the government walking backwards and violating the constitution.”