Human Rights Day Activists Face Obstacles Entering Capital

Activists and monks who have been marching to Phnom Penh from across the country to mark Human Rights Day on Wednesday met with roadblocks and armed police on the city’s outskirts Tuesday morning, negotiating their way through the blockages only to find the pagodas where they intended to spend the night were locked.

A group of about 70 marchers making their way along National Road 2 came up against a roadblock manned by some 30 police in Meanchey district at about 11 a.m. Tuesday, where they were prevented from passing for about an hour.

Activists from Takeo province walk along National Road 2 on Tuesday on their way to Phnom Penh to mark Human Rights Day today. Since Friday, more than 600 activists and monks have been marching to the capital from across the country. Several groups on Tuesday came up against police blockades, while others were locked out of the pagodas where they had planned to spend the night. (John Vink)
Activists from Takeo province walk along National Road 2 on Tuesday on their way to Phnom Penh to mark Human Rights Day today. Since Friday, more than 600 activists and monks have been marching to the capital from across the country. Several groups on Tuesday came up against police blockades, while others were locked out of the pagodas where they had planned to spend the night. (John Vink)

But contacted Tuesday, acting district police chief Chuem Sitha denied that his officers had set up barricades.

“No, we didn’t set up barriers; it was time for the monks to have lunch,” he said. Mr. Sitha said authorities demanded that representatives of the marchers sign agreements promising that they would not block traffic once inside the city center.

“We did not stop them, we just checked them for weapons…and ensured there would be no traffic jams,” he said.

Once the roadblocks were removed, the group—which started their journey in Takeo province’s Kiri Vong district—tramped down the highway and past the Phnom Penh headquarters of the opposition CNRP, where they were met by party president Sam Rainsy and lawmaker Mu Sochua, who accompanied them to Wat Tan on Norodom Boulevard.

Prak Bora, second deputy chief monk at the pagoda, welcomed the weary band at about 2 p.m., and criticized reports that authorities had ordered pagodas along the way to lock out marchers.

“I’m not happy that local authorities pressure pagodas to ban marchers from staying,” he said. “A pagoda is a place for everyone.”

But a second group of marchers that had traveled from Ratanakkiri province—which was also temporarily stopped outside the city by police, according to rights group Adhoc—apparently received a less warm welcome.

The group, which included members of the seven different ethnic minority communities from the country’s northeast, was refused entry to Keang Kleang pagoda in Chroy Changva district, where they had intended to stay the night, according to rights group Licadho.

The activists moved on to nearby Wat Chas, where they were offered shelter, Licadho said.

Another group of about 100 marchers, which had traveled into the city via National Road 4, arrived at Stung Meanchey pagoda in Meanchey district to find the gates locked.

Thai Bunthoeun, acting chief monk at the pagoda, said his decision to stop marchers from entering was in accordance with a joint statement released by the country’s Mohanikaya and Thammayut Buddhist sects on Friday prohibiting monks from taking part in marches.

“Another reason is that we are afraid that they will not leave if we allow them to stay,” he said.

After being rejected from Wat Stung Meanchey, the group was welcomed at Wat Samakki Raingsey, where chief monk Sieng Sovannara said the group was “staying happily” last night.

Speaking at Wat Tan, Ms. Sochua, the opposition lawmaker, said she was hopeful authorities would allow Wednesday’s celebrations to go ahead despite Tuesday’s obstacles.

“It’s been sad to see the way [the monks] have been treated along the way…but I’m optimistic they will be allowed to finish without any blockades. I think authorities know better than to stop them,” she said.

“They will just intimidate with the security guards and all that, but I think it will be justice that will prevail.”

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