Free Speech / News

Freedom Park Locked Down Ahead of Labor Day

by Mech Dara + Matt Blomberg  /  The Cambodia Daily

With mass demonstrations by the opposition CNRP planned for the next two weeks, and a labor day protest by unions set for Thursday, the government showed off the strength of its security forces Wednesday.

All roads leading to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park were barricaded by police, and the eastern and western ends of the square were sealed off with razor-wire to prevent a small contingent of opposition supporters, led by lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua, from entering the park.

Riot police look on as CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua and others light incense sticks and fix them to razor-wire barricades erected by authorities around Freedom Park in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa)

Riot police look on as CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua and others light incense sticks and fix them to razor-wire barricades erected by authorities around Freedom Park in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa)

A few hundred riot police armed with stun grenades, tasers and truncheons were supported by a few dozen of the district security guards, who have repeatedly—and sometimes violently—evicted opposition leaders and supporters from the park this year.

With unions denied permission to use Freedom Park to celebrate International Labor Day today, and the CNRP banned from setting up a base for the coming council election campaign, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said security was imperative.

“We put the barricades in place to stop anarchic activities which violate our bans,” Mr. Dimanche said.

Freedom Park, Mr. Dimanche said, is the scene of investigations into January strikes on Veng Sreng Street that were put down when police shot dead five protesters, and an incident in December where monks led a march from the park to surround City Hall to prevent municipal staff leaving their offices.

“We need to keep the location for the investigations to find the people responsible for causing violence in the past,” he said. “When people committed this violence, they had come from Freedom Park.”

No one has been held to account for the killing of the five protesters on Veng Sreng Street, the wounding of 40 more, or the death of two bystanders killed by police gunfire at separate demonstrations late last year.

The National Election Committee (NEC) earlier this month ruled that no party would be allowed to set up bases for the council elections, after the CNRP announced it would again make Freedom Park its home. The campaign period begins Friday and runs through May 16.

City Hall governor Pa Socheatvong on Wednesday sent a letter to the Phnom Penh Election Committee (PPEC), asking it to extend the ban to rallying and marching through the city. The letter also confirms that the municipality, which controls the city’s police and helmeted parapolice, would support any ruling.

“[The PPEC] should not allow political parties to rally and march in public locations…. They should rally at their own offices,” reads the letter, which carries Mr. Socheatvong’s signature.

“The competent authorities will take action to stop any party campaign candidates or representatives who do not obey the legal instructions,” the letter continues.

PPEC director Lon Cheng Kai said that the letter had been forwarded to the NEC, which would rule on the request.

During opposition demonstrations in December that merged with garment worker protests, the CNRP’s post-election momentum hit an all-time high. Daily mass rallies based in Freedom Park spread out into marches of up to 50,000 people snaking through the city.

The CNRP on Tuesday released a statement saying that they would again make Freedom Park their campaign base for the council election.

Yem Ponhearith, a CNRP lawmaker-elect, said Wednesday that the opposition would not accept any bans on campaigning and rallying.

“All election campaigns are allowed to have a rally point in a multiparty democracy,” Mr. Ponhearith said. “We have received information [about the ban] but we will still march in the election campaign because this is the law.”

Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the NEC, said Wednesday that he could not make a decision on City Hall’s request to have rallying banned in the capital because he had not yet received the letter from the PPEC.

Koul Panha, executive director for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that City Hall had no authority to make such a request and that any move by the NEC to ban election campaigning or rallies was a breach of election law.

“The election authority is supposed to be neutral. They have complained of being a paper tiger before, now is the chance to show that they are not,” he said.

“In a democratic society, there is respect for the election laws,” Mr. Panha said. “But this is authoritarian democracy, where the government uses the election authorities for its own benefit.”

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