Freedom Park was placed under lockdown and a march by land rights activists was blocked Saturday morning as Phnom Penh’s security officials were out in force to ensure that peaceful rallies on International Women’s Day could not go as planned.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on February 25 indicated he had restored the constitutional freedom to assemble, overturning a January 4 protest ban instituted by the Ministry of Interior, but authorities have continued to break up demonstrations critical of the government, sometimes violently.
At about 7 a.m. Saturday, police began forming a perimeter of 2-meter tall metal barricades on the east and west sides of Freedom Park, and blocked roads entering the park from the north and south.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Daun Penh district’s extra-legal security guards, the black-helmeted men who have come to symbolize the government’s brute intolerance for public gatherings, began to chase away journalists and human rights observers who had gathered near the park.
Speaking over loudspeakers atop a police truck, a municipal official urged people not to test authorities on a national holiday.
“You should take your wife and children and go hang out somewhere else, don’t stay around here,” the man said. “If you don’t follow this, we will take action.”
“This is International Women’s Day, citizens not only need to relax, but authorities need to relax too, but you don’t use your brain and you come to make anarchy,” he continued.
“We do not violate you, but you violate our rights [as authorities],” he added.
Minutes later, with dozens of garment factory workers gathered near the Naga bridge on Norodom Boulevard, district security guards surrounded Yaing Sophorn, president of the Cambodian Alliance of Trade Unions, one of the groups that organized the forum at Freedom Park.
Ms. Sophorn told the security guards that they were breaking the law by denying citizens their constitutional right to assemble.
“You deputies cannot violate the law,” Ms. Sophorn said to the black-helmeted men. “Now Freedom Park has become a battlefield owned by powerful men.”
“We need to stand up together…for the release of the 21 and we need to get our workers a $160 basic salary, so we need to fight together,” Ms. Sophorn told the guards.
The guards then began pushing Ms. Sophorn and a small group of colleagues off the sidewalk and onto Norodom Boulevard, and briefly chased down another man, with one guard throwing a baton at his back, but the security guards quickly withdrew and spent most of the morning with police inside Freedom Park.
Khim Vutha, head of the Daun Penh security guards, said he was simply doing his job.
“You cannot stand around here,” he said.
With hundreds of riot police doing training exercises at the west end of the park throughout the morning, and hundreds of military police stationed nearby at the Phnom Penh train station, only 300 to 400 protesters eventually turned out for the forum, which organizers had said might involve 30,000 workers.
Both City Hall and the Ministry of Interior said that the forum would not be allowed to go ahead, as it had veiled political motivations that could disrupt public order.
Throughout the morning, union leaders including Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, and Pav Sina, president of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, stood atop benches in the park adjacent to Freedom Park to address the crowd, almost equal parts protesters and members of human rights groups and the media.
The union leaders laid out their demands for a strike planned for the middle of this week: a $160 minimum wage, the release of 21 protesters who were imprisoned following the violent suppression of garment worker demonstrations in January, the prosecution of military police who shot dead five garment workers and injured at least 40 more and an end to legal intimidation of union leaders.
Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha made a brief stop along Norodom Boulevard to express their solidarity with the workers before hopping back into their white SUV and driving away.
Moeun Tola, head of the labor program at the Community Legal Education Center, said that the low turnout at the forum was due to the large police presence around Phnom Penh on Saturday and checkpoints set up around the city where trucks and tuk-tuks—filled with workers—without proper registration were not allowed to pass through.
A group of land rights activists, including monks, members of the former Boeng Kak lake community and Borei Keila residents, were also prevented from marching to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs to deliver a petition calling for the government to stop using violence against women and increase its efforts to protect women from abuse.
After an hour-long standoff with police on a side street near Calmette Hospital, the group decided to return to their communities and gave their petition to a representative of City Hall to deliver to the Ministry of Women’s Affairs.
In the evening, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs sponsored a star-studded music concert at Olympic Stadium, where on Thursday hundreds of police held training exercises in anticipation of a violent suppression of Saturday’s union forum, which ultimately did not proceed.
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)
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