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Phnom Penh ‘Bans Protests’ Outside Parliament Ahead of Election

FILE PHOTO - Armed authority was deployed near the National Assembly blocking unionists and workers from protesting on Labor Day, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 1, 2017. (Khan Sokummono/VOA Khmer

The May Day march on Tuesday was limited to a riverside space near the city’s landmark site of Wat Phnom and with a large security force presence.

Protests outside Cambodia’s parliament have reportedly been banned ahead of the forthcoming national election in July.

In a meeting on April 27, Deputy Phnom Penh Governor Mean Chanyada said the city had received the “instruction” from the National Assembly, according to official minutes of the meeting obtained by VOA Khmer.

“The proposal to march in front of the National Assembly is not permitted due to the fact that, in the past, the National Assembly has given instructions to the administration of Phnom Penh that no assembly or expression [is allowed] in front of the National Assembly complex to keep security, safety, and public order for the National Assembly,” Chanyada was quoted as sayings.

There were no clear details in the minutes of when and from whom the instruction was sent from the National Assembly that saw a drastic overhaul late last year to redistribute the seats of 55 elected opposition MPs.

Ath Thorn, chairman of the Cambodian Labor Confederation, who attended the April 27 meeting with the city, confirmed the ban was announced, which he described as a step “too far”.

“The way they restrict shows their concern has gone too far on even a random assembly by citizens or garment workers,” Thorn said. “I think the National Assembly is not a private place, it is in the public sphere.”

“Protecting the National Assembly is right, but the suggestion to deny any assembly following proper legal procedure, I think, is not acceptable,” he added.

The May Day march led by Thorn and other unionists on Tuesday was limited to a riverside space near the city’s landmark site of Wat Phnom and with a large security force presence. A handful of union representatives was allowed to deliver a petition to the National Assembly.

Chanyada did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday. A municipality spokesman and a spokesman for the National Assembly could not be reached.

The square in front of the National Assembly complex was a popular meeting point for the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s campaign rallies in Phnom Penh during the 2013 parliamentary election. Two of its lawmakers were savagely beaten in a pro-government protest demanding then-opposition leader Kem Sokha resign from his position.The perpetrators were identified as members of Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit.

Chheang Vun, a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said he had no knowledge about the ban on demonstrations as the affair fell under the supervision of the House’s secretariat, but said such an idea was “reasonable”, citing “previous experiences,” including the beating of lawmakers in 2015.

“If there is this kind of suggestion from the National Assembly, it will be a preventative measure to protect against violence from happening,” Vun said.

“Just my idea: Firstly, I think we do not want any kind of assemblies that can lead to violence that affects the lawmakers and the National Assembly. Secondly, any assemblies -- at any places -- that can provoke violence must be banned.”

The CPP lawmaker added that the National Assembly would remain open to the public to come forward with their concerns and ideas to their legislative representatives, but said any mass assembly would be “dealt with under the laws accordingly.”

The order from the Lower House was cited amid wider concerns over the narrowing space for freedom of assembly in the wake of a sweeping political crackdown on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s electoral challengers and critics ahead of the July vote.

A State Department report, released last month, said that Cambodian government “did not always respect” its citizen’s constitutional rights to peaceful assembly, noting the increase in pre-election rhetoric by the military and political elites threatening of violence against protesters.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the reported instruction to ban protests was “shocking,” adding that the move was another example of “arbitrary” denials of the people’s basic rights.

“If the leaders of the National Assembly really think this way about people’s right to public assembly, they are unsuitable as democratic representatives and should resign,” Robertson said in an e-mail.

“What this shows is the government is afraid that any sort of public assembly will immediately become anti-government. Even worse, it shows that the government is afraid to hear the real opinions of the Cambodian workers as expressed on the street.”