Organizers of Saturday’s rally in Phnom Penh to mark International Human Rights Day backed down from plans for a public march following warnings from the government it would take unspecified “measures” if the march went ahead.
Ahead of the event, rights groups said they were expecting up to 5,000 people to gather at the city’s Freedom Park before walking a 2.5 km route south to Wat Botum, despite orders from City Hall not to march because it was “not necessary.”
In the end, only about 1,000 people gathered at the park on Saturday morning and organizers decided not to march after all.
Contacted after the event, Ieng Pich, acting director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), said they erred on the side of caution for fear of jeopardizing the fragile political negotiations believed to be taking place to release a group of rights workers from prison.
“We did not march because we did not want to challenge the authorities and we wanted the situation to stay calm,” Mr. Pich said. “If we had challenged the authorities, it might have affected the release of the five human rights workers.”
The five prisoners—four current and one former employee of local rights group Adhoc—are accused of bribing a woman to deny allegations that she had an affair with acting CNRP President Kem Sokha. They are among 26 people currently in jail and considered political prisoners by rights group Licadho, most of which are CNRP officials or activists.
Some of Saturday’s rally participants had tried to gather at a separate site, in front of the nearby offices of the Council for the Development of Cambodia. But only about a dozen of them had arrived there before police ordered them to join the crowd at Freedom Park.
At the park, CHRAC Chairman Yong Kim Eng told the crowd that the human rights situation in Cambodia had taken a stark turn for the worse over the past year, highlighting the fatal shooting of government critic and popular political analyst Kem Ley in July. The man arrested for the shooting claims he killed Kem Ley over a $3,000 debt, but most Cambodians believe it was a politically motivated hit.
“This year, we saw the arrest of human rights workers, the murder of an independent analyst, and environmental activists and political activists sent to prison,” he said.
Moeun Tola, the head of labor rights group Central, who led the failed attempt to rally in front of the Cambodia Development Council, said the many restrictions the government put on protests showed that the CPP did not trust in its own popularity.
“The current leaders are not confident in themselves; they don’t know if the villagers love them or hate them,” he told the crowd at Freedom Park. “If you believe that you are doing good, that the villagers love you, you should not be scared of villagers when they gather and mark the anniversary of Human Rights Day.”
Contacted on Sunday, deputy Phnom Penh governor Mean Chanyada defended City Hall’s ban on marching.
“We did not want something that would damage security and public order,” he said. “What rights have we suppressed?”