Civil society organizations, unions and citizens celebrated Human Rights Day in Phnom Penh on the weekend, but were not permitted to march through the streets and many opted to hold their celebrations in Freedom Park.
On Saturday, Yang Kim Eng, the chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), spoke to more than 1,000 people at Freedom Park about the human rights situation in Cambodia.
He talked about the murder of prominent social commentator Kem Ley as well as attacks on land rights protesters, environmental activists and the imprisonment of human rights officials.
“Freedom of expression is the content and core of a democratic society,” he said. “The development that cuts off freedom of expression is meaningless development for the people because the development was made without responding to the real needs of citizens.”
He said that a number of new laws passed this year were intended to stifle dissent, criminalize protests and narrow the space for civil society in the country.
Government officials took the opposite view, highlighting progress the country has made in comparison with other countries.
The respect and development of human rights is because our country has political stability and peace. So peace is the foundation of human rights and development,” said Keo Remy, head of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee.
A jot statement by 61 civil society organizations recognized the government’s efforts to develop the country, but expressed concern about restrictions on fundamental freedoms and the rights of citizens to express themselves in public or on social media
“Currently, there are many cases of human rights violations taking place across the country, including physical abuse and judicial violations for those who criticize the government,” they wrote.
“The murder of social analyst Dr. Kem Ley and the detention of the Adhoc officials in Cambodia is a sign of the setbacks facing democracy and human rights in Cambodia.”
They asked the government to release all human rights, political, land and environmental activists in prison, expedite the investigation into Mr. Ley’s murder and to stop using the judiciary against political opponents, unions, activists and human rights defenders.
According to rights group Licadho, Human Rights Day celebrations were held in 13 places in the capital and in 11 provinces, with participation numbering more than 10,000.
In Phnom Penh, residents planned to gather at the garden in front of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, but were blocked by security forces and police, who told them to take their gathering to Freedom Park.
The Phnom Penh municipality issued a letter rejecting requests by a variety of groups seeking to celebrate the day at a number of public places across the city, telling them instead to hold private events in houses or at organization headquarters to “avoid impacting social order.”
Organizers were allowed to hold celebrations in Freedom Park, which was watched over by more than 300 police.
In Kampot, a Human Rights Day gathering was blocked by local authorities, who said the organizers had to ask for permission earlier than they did. Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Chak Sopheap said the government had a long way to go before it fully respected the rights of citizens.
“Cambodia has to continue the long journey in terms of its respect for human rights,” she said.
“The most important thing is that Cambodian citizens, including individuals in civil society, political parties and the government, must stand up for human rights in demanding and ensuring that everyone enjoys the same rights and freedoms which are recognized internationally.”