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Detentions of Protest Leaders Another Sign of Eroded Freedoms, Advocates Say

Garment workers throw objects at riot police during a strike near a factory of Canadia Center, on the Stung Meanchey complex at the outskirt of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Jan. 3, 2014. Police wounded several striking Cambodian garment workers Friday when they opened fire to break up a labor protest, witnesses said.(AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

A day after nearly a dozen activists were briefly detained and later released, rights advocates say Cambodia’s progress toward democracy continues to falter.

Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said rights and freedoms have seen “a very strong backslide” over the last decade. He marked the 2003 anti-Thai riots, when the Thai Embassy and Thai businesses were sacked by angry mobs, as the point where more police and security forces began to break up demonstrations, leading to today’s environment.

“The government had an excuse to ban demonstrations,” he said. “It’s 11 years now that Cambodia seems to have moved backward, greatly, in the democratic process.”

Increasingly, the military and police have been deployed to curb demonstrations—often leading to violence or arrests. Earlier this month, police opened fire on labor and opposition protesters, killing at least four people and injuring another 40.

On Tuesday, police swept in on protest leaders, pushed them into vans and drove away. The leaders, which included outspoken housing rights activist Tep Vanny, were later released, but only after promising to stop leading demonstrations.

“Cambodians have increasingly demonstrated a desire to exercise their basic rights in the face of an entrenched ruling party that shows no willingness to respect them,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told VOA Khmer. “Most international donors, who provide much of the government’s budget, are still stuck in a ‘see no evil’ mentality that misses out on the Cambodian public’s dismay with persistent bad governance, corruption, and repression.”

Adams said the internationally community is in part to blame, for supporting the government without enough stipulations on rights.

“It’s time for the international community, which still funds a very large part of the Cambodian budget, to actually say enough is enough and let the Cambodian government know that there’s not a blank check anymore,” he said. “They have been getting blank checks for 20 years and doing the same thing they said they would stop doing 20 years ago.”

Following July’s election, which handed a narrow win to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Cambodian leaders made some gestures toward curbing public anger, including the release of jailed activist Yorm Bopha. But she is still only out on bail, and charges against her remain.

Adams said such gestures should not be taken as a sign the CPP is ready to reform. “But rather as evidence that more international pressure is needed to bring about human rights changes,” he said.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the administration has worked to ensure public order and safety, with pro-opposition activists and others turning to violence in their demonstrations. “The government has an obligation to normalize the situation,” he said.

However, Ny Chakrya, chief investigator for the rights group Adhoc, told VOA khmer that Cambodia risks falling under dictatorial rule if basic freedoms are not protected.

“The freedom of assembly and the freedom of peaceful expression are falling down,” he said. “In the past, I noted that these freedoms had returned, back in the 1980s, but now I have seen these freedoms fall to another level, one that could move to the level of non-existence.”