By Jonathan Coulombe
The first few months of 2014 were dark in terms of freedom of assembly in Cambodia. Hence, when I arrived for my internship, this was the main topic surrounding us. From January to today, we saw ongoing attempts by the authorities to silence dissenting opinions, often with violence. Today, we can see the somber results of this perpetual constriction of rights.
The issue mostly started with the elections, but culminated with the garment workers strikes. Following the 2013 national, the government promised to increase the minimum wage in the garment sector by 64 percent, from $61 to $95, a number yet under the demanded $160 per month to “stop surviving” , researches having confirmed that the current government offer of $100 per month is truly insufficient to satisfy basic needs of workers.
While there is a legally entrenched right to strike under the Constitution, on Thursday January 2, protesters clashed with soldiers from the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces’ elite 911 brigade. At least 15 people were injured while being beaten by sticks and rocks by the 911 brigade and 10 were arrested. Their whereabouts were hidden for 5 days until it was confirmed by the government officials that they had been transported to Correctional Centre 3 CC3) located in a remote area in Kampong Cham province rather than CC1, the usual and closer detention center.
Furthermore, the day after the clashes, on January 3, 2014, protests continued and so did its violent repression. Security forces in fact used live ammunition against striking workers. At least four civilians were shot dead, 38 were injured and a teenager, Khem Sophath, was last seen with bullet wounds before disappearing. He is still missing. Thirteen more men were arrested on this day. These detainees together would form the 23 (I will speak of them in a further entry).
Then, on January 4, 2014, the Ministry of the Interior issued a media statement announcing a ban on all public gatherings and marches while also expulsing everyone from Freedom Park, the “Democracy Plaza”. The park was fenced with barbed wire.
This reduction of freedom of assembly also occurred the same day military forces were deployed at a number of points throughout the city and followed a statement issued by the Ministry of Defence, saying that it would protect at all costs the results of the July 2013 general elections and the government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Arrest for gathering continued later in January and February as human rights defenders were often detained as they attempted to demonstrate. They were usually release the same day, signing forms promising that they would not take nor incite any actions prohibited by law, including demonstrations.
This did not stop the protests going on nonetheless. Other demonstrations in fact took place, calling for actions on many issues. The demonstrations were always faced with violent repression.
This ban of public gathering seemed to be a one-way policy however as the ruling party (CPP) still hosted a large public events and tolerated anti-CNRP gatherings.
The ban was abolished on February 25, 2014, by the ruling party, with Prime Minister Hun Sen warning of possible violence that could occur under gatherings. Moreover, reference is still being made to the ban as if it was still in place, over its application and the right of freedom of assembly. Similarly, since February 25, protesters continued to face massive intimidation by security guards and police forces in place.
While I monitored some gatherings since my arrival with LICADHO, I must say that the continuous presence of police forces and security guards always increased the tension in place. Nonetheless, I was lucky enough to witness very few acts of violence. Today, however, the population tried to take back Freedom Park in a gathering organized by the opposition party and when security guards tried to repel the protesters, violence emerged like never before on the part of the population who took revenge on the authority after having endured repression for so long.
I invite you to watch this video by the Phnom Penh Post to get the details of it:
The question that remains is what will be the next step to this violence? If the protesters fight back and stop being non-violent, will the increasingly present security guards be equipped with more dangerous weapons and equipment? Will the security guards try themselves to avenge this event?
LICADHO has issued a statement today regarding what has happened (you can read it here: http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=348). As always, the organization is very critical of any form of violence, whether from the authority or the protesters. This kind of events can only lead to the escalation of conflicts.
 http://www.cambodiadaily.com/archives/at-least-15-injured-as-soldiers-clash-with-strikers-monks-49957/ – http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=336
 http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=334 – http://www.licadho-cambodia.org/pressrelease.php?perm=336