The Phnom Penh municipal government on Monday rejected a request from protesters to stage a one-month demonstration in the city’s Freedom Park for the release of 10 jailed activists and refused to receive their latest petition demanding a solution to their long-running land disputes.
About 100 people from the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila neighborhoods, where residents have been protesting against forced evictions in their communities for years, gathered in front of City Hall on Monday morning to continue pressing for help.
A municipal security guard grabs a bullhorn away from protesters in front of Phnom Penh City Hall on Monday. (John Vink)
In November, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summarily tried and convicted the 10 activists—nine from Boeng Kak and one from Borei Keila—over a pair of demonstrations, sentencing them to a year in prison.
Besides rejecting the request from protesters Monday to demonstrate for one month for the activists’ release, City Hall sent no one outside its offices to accept their petition.
The petition asks the municipality to pressure the private developer of Borei Keila to build the last two of 10 apartment blocks promised to the neighborhood’s evictees. It also asks the city to allow 16 Boeng Kak families that live on the west side of the neighborhood’s former lake to move into a 12.44-hectare section on the east side, where residents have been spared eviction and granted land titles.
“We cannot wait for much longer with these land disputes. Many residents are in jail, but the problems have not been solved,” said Chan Puthisak, one of the protesters.
After being pushed away from City Hall by municipal and Daun Penh district security guards—who took a bullhorn from the protesters—the group marched to the National Assembly, where they handed their petition to opposition lawmaker Chea Poch, who vowed to help them press their case with Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong.
Contacted later in the day, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the municipality had no choice but to turn down the protesters’ request for a monthlong demonstration.
“We will not allow anyone to demonstrate at Freedom Park because there is no law that allows protesters to hold a one-month demonstration there,” he said.
The Law on Peaceful Assembly, in fact, does not set a time limit on how long a demonstration can last. It also does not require the city’s approval for demonstrations, but says that protest organizers must inform the municipality of their plans in advance.
The law requires that the city allow a demonstration to proceed unless it falls on certain holidays or “may cause danger or may seriously jeopardize security, safety and public order.”
Rights groups accuse the government of interpreting these last conditions too broadly.