Four more activists were arrested and charged with incitement over the past two days for planning a peaceful rally at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park to seek justice for other demonstrators who have been detained in the past month, a move civil society groups say shows that the government is ramping up its restrictions of fundamental freedoms.
Although Freedom Park is the capital’s only designated space for citizens to exercise their freedom of assembly, access to it was blocked on September 7 by barricades, police officers and district security guards, measures City Hall says were necessary to maintain security and public order.
Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (KSILA) Deputy President Mean Promony, Khmer Thavrak members Tha Lavy and venerable monk Kert Saray, and activist Kong Sam An had announced on Facebook on August 29th at they would host a peaceful rally from September 7-15 to seek justice for union leader Rong Chhun and other activists from environmental NGO Mother Nature, all of whom they believe have been imprisoned unfairly.
The four were arrested on September 6 and 7 and charged with incitement to disturb social security, marking a total of 13 activists accused of the same crime in a month.
“If we want justice, [we] need to demand justice” read the Facebook post for the event, hosted by a Facebook page called Active Citizen. “Please join us to express your opinion.”
National Police spokesman Chhay Kim Khoeun said the four activists were arrested in line with court warrants accusing them of incitement to disturb social security.
“The court has already decided to place them in pre-trial detention at the prison,” he said.
Tbong Khmum Provincial Court spokesman Theng Cheag confirmed Sam An was arrested in the province in accordance with the warrant.
“We have just cooperated and followed the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s warrant,” he said, adding that Sam An had been sent to Phnom Penh after he was apprehended.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Kuch Kimlong could not be reached for comment.
On September 7 outside Freedom Park, about 20 protesters scuffled with police and Russie Keo district security guards as the group attempted to enter the public space, despite receiving a letter from Phnom Penh City Hall on September 2 informing them that their request to demonstrate had been denied.
“They did not identify who will be participating and the number of participants could be dangerous or could affect security, safety and public order,” the letter reads.
“Second, they have made their appeal on a Facebook page named ‘Active Citizen’ which shows that their meaning is to incite people against the court’s procedures,” the letter continued.
Sok Ratha, 26, a member of the KSILA who showed up to attend the protest said the recent arrests of activists are unjust, as is the authorities’ decision to barricade Freedom Park.
“I think that it is really restricting our basic freedoms because when we have done [public] activities in the past, they accused us of acting illegally, but when we followed their instructions to ask permission [to demonstrate] they did not allow us,” he said.
Ratha added that his group had informed City Hall ahead of time that their demonstration would involve about 200 people, but were still denied.
“We just want people to be able to exercise their opinions and [we] want to help educate the public on the law,” Ratha said. “What does it mean if Freedom Park is designated for the public to exercise their opinion, but they prohibit us from doing so?” he asked.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Met Measpkeakdey said the demonstration had been banned because although the organizers had applied to use the space, they did not explain how they could control the participants to ensure safety and public order.
“We saw that they followed the instructions, but when we had a meeting to discuss [the plan] with them, they could not confirm the number of people who will be attending and they also called through their Facebook page for the public to freely participate in the event,” Measpheakdey said.
“So, they can’t answer how they will manage people who attend, which is why we cannot allow them to hold the event,” he said.
According to the Law on Peaceful Demonstrations, there is no limit to the number of people who can attend a general demonstration.
“If a demonstration is held at a Freedom Park and very few more than 200 demonstrators attend, authorities should allow the demonstration to proceed unless it threatens public order,” Section 2 of the law says.
“Authorities should use their best efforts to assure that all groups wanting to demonstrate are able to do so,” it continues.
Measpheakdey called on civil society groups to take a comprehensive look at the information before drawing a conclusion that authorities had been biased against one party.
“[NGOs] don’t just choose to see that Freedom Park was blocked and say that rights to freedom of expression have been restricted,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet declined to comment.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that civil society groups were too concerned with exercising their rights and freedom of expression but were not thinking about the interests of national security and public order.
“We want to ask civil society groups whether they can guarantee that a gathering without a limit on the number of participants will not disturb national security,” he said.
“If they can’t guarantee [security], then measures to prevent the gathering are necessary, and it is not violating their right to freedom of expression,” Malin said.
With access to Freedom Park denied, civil society groups like Mother Nature and aggrieved activists like those supporting Chhun are left with nowhere to turn to publicly express their discontent.
Demonstrations by CNRP supporters at Freedom Park’s former location in central Phnom Penh drew tens of thousands in 2013, and the park was violently cleared in January 2014. In 2017, City Hall announced that the park would be relocated to its current location on the outskirts of Phnom Penh after Hun Sen said the central location was causing anarchy.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc, said the public’s inability to publicly express opinions was part of a trend of the declining state of fundamental freedoms in the country.
“We have seen that there are still restrictions on the rights of assembly and expression and a lack of respect for human rights,” he said.
“We are wondering why they have a place [Freedom Park] where the public can exercise their freedom of expression, but then do not allow it,” he added.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said authorities have made conscious efforts to prevent and disperse peaceful assemblies and that limiting access to Freedom Park shows that the government does not intend to ease up on its violations of the freedom of assembly.
“Restricting access to this dedicated space demonstrates yet another attempt of the authorities to diminish the voices of protestors,” Sopheap said.
“In line with their human rights obligations, the [government] should create enabling and safe spaces for these individuals, and all other citizens, to exercise their freedoms,” she said. “At the very least, the government must stop viewing activists and human rights defenders as political dissidents and release all those arbitrarily arrested for exercising their rights and freedoms.”
Sopheap also said the sheer number of arrests of activists for simply exercising their fundamental freedoms was “alarming”.
“While unfortunately the judicial harassment and intimidation of activists and human rights defenders is not uncommon in Cambodia, alarmingly the number of arrests of outspoken individuals has surged in a short space of time, and there has been a clear targeting of high-profile activist voices,” she said.
The arrests of four activists planning to demonstrate at Freedom Park this week follows those of three Mother Nature activists last week and a spate of detentions and charges laid against a group of activists who have been protesting since August 1 to demand the release of Chhun. The frequent government critic was jailed on July 31 for allegedly engaging in incitement by making comments about the placement of demarcation posts along theCambodia-Vietnam border.
Of the group of about 50 who have called for Chhun’s release,12 have been arrested, with five subsequently charged with incitement to disturb social security and placed in pre-trial detention, including Khmer Win Party President Soung Sophorn.
In the days immediately following Chhun’s arrest, a group of about 20 of his supporters demonstrated on three occasions outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, but on the third day were blocked by a group of about 70 police and military police officers. They instead took to the streets, marching from O’Russei market to the Justice Ministry, chanting for Chhun to be freed.
Municipal police chief Thet said later that day that protests were not allowed outside of the courthouse, and also threatened the group with legal action if they demonstrated in other public areas.
“We do not allow [protesters] to provoke any anarchy in front of the court institution,” he said. “Our forces will standby until the illegal protests stop,” he said.
“If they provoke and disturb the people who are traveling, they [authorities] will take legal action” against protesters, he said.
In mid August, Prime Minister Hun Sen also threatened the protesters in a speech at the opening of a water park in Phnom Penh.
“I send a message: As many as you come out [we] will arrest all related to the border issue,” the premier said. “Do not accuse Hun Sen’s government of being a dictatorship because it isn’t opinion or advocacy.”
Since then, the group of activists have continued to gather, and have been blocked by police and district security guards on several occasions as they marched to deliver petitions to foreign embassies calling on them to intervene in Chhun’s case.
According to an annual report released in July by the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project, between April 2019 and March 2020 there were 53 restrictions and 21 violations of the freedom of assembly.