Villagers from Kompong Speu province protested for a second day in front of the Phnom Penh headquarters of ANZ Royal Bank on Wednesday, smearing the building’s exterior with red-painted handprints after the lender once again refused to help them resolve their land dispute with a sugar plantation it helped finance.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday said he would reinstate the constitutional right to freedom of assembly for all citizens, but said that any opposition demonstrations would be met by rival rallies by supporters of his ruling CPP.
Mr. Hun Sen said that he was not personally calling on pro-government demonstrators to come out on the streets, but was explaining how his supporters will likely react if the CNRP chooses to exercise their constitutional right to assemble.
“Now, I am not requesting to hold demonstrations, but I will not prevent it,” Mr. Hun Sen said during a speech in Preah Sihanouk province.
“I just want [supporters of the CPP and CNRP] to be equal with each other,” he said.
“As I am prime minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, [I] must guarantee peace for all, as well as guarantee the right to gather for all,” he said.
“Now the demonstrations have two groups. [Government] supporters have the right [to demonstrate] and the opposition party supporters also have the same right,” he said, adding that local authorities should prepare to accommodate rival rallies.
“I send a message to all authorities of all places, if the opposition supporters have the right [to demonstrate], [government] supporters have the right, too,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“So we need to prepare stone fences or metal fences for one side to hold demonstrations to support [the government] and the other side to hold the demonstration against [the government],” he continued.
“If both sides request Freedom Park together, the Phnom Penh municipality must prepare to divide it into two parts, one side for [government] supporters and one side for opposition supporters,” he added.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy criticized Mr. Hun Sen’s remarks, saying that they were not meant as a guarantee of the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, but were a veiled threat that any opposition rally would spiral into clashes with ruling party supporters.
“I denounce another CPP trick to threaten us,” Mr. Rainsy said. “It shows that the government is not sincere and the government continues to threaten the opposition in order to prevent the opposition demonstrations from taking place.”
Mr. Rainsy said that if Mr. Hun Sen were serious about restoring freedom of assembly, he should ensure that rallies by competing political forces are held at different times and places to avoid potential violence.
“There are many possible places for any demonstration and they can be at different times and different places,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“The government should prevent clashes between two opposing groups rather than organize clashes between two groups,” he added.
“What Hun Sen meant is that he threatened to organize clashes between CNRP supporters and CPP supporters.”
General Khieu Sopheak, a senior CPP member and spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said that the prime minister’s speech calling for the restoration of the freedom to demonstrate would now replace a January 4 statement from the ministry announcing that public protests were indefinitely banned.
“The speech of my prime minister is higher than the public statement or communique that was released by the Ministry of Interior,” General Sopheak said.
“We will follow the guidelines laid out by my prime minister,” he added.
Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong, whose security forces have repeatedly beaten and detained protesters since the Constitution was suspended and the ban on demonstrations instituted in early January, tried to claim Tuesday that freedom of assembly had never been denied to citizen.
“We never banned protesting,” he claimed.
“We can allow [demonstrations] without conditions if they follow the law…except for the anarchic gatherings without the correct management.”
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