Despite the deployment of law enforcement officials across the capital in a bid to halt the demonstration, activists yesterday marched as promised to the National Assembly to protest the looming adoption of highly controversial union and NGO laws.
Starting at about 8am, hundreds of land activists, environmentalists, monks, civil society members and ordinary citizens gathered at four starting points: the Niroth pagoda in Chbar Ampov commune, Wat Chak Angre Leu, the 7 January flyover and the French Embassy.
As participants began their march toward the National Assembly, banners and flags in hand, authorities armed with shields and batons quickly began to seize materials and block their paths, leading to verbal altercations and some pushing in the process, though no serious violence was recorded.
In demonstrators’ crosshairs were the Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organisations, or LANGO, as well as a law governing the nation’s trade unions. Both have been widely criticised for vague language many fear will give the government license to broadly inhibit their ability to operate. Both could pass before the month ends.
While the heavy police presence at the staging areas dissuaded a significant percentage of activists, perhaps half continued on to the National Assembly at about 11am, when police began to dissipate.
With music blaring, protesters sang and danced, often with their thumbs down, shouting “No to LANGO”, while lotus petals were thrown and balloons released into the air. At one point, a group of CNRP lawmakers made their way into the crowd to join the demonstrators.
“[We’re demanding] the parliamentarians in the National Assembly stop the adoption of the NGO law and consult seriously with all the stakeholders, especially with grassroots civil society and trade unions,” Nay Vanda, a deputy head at local rights group Adhoc, said outside the National Assembly. “We know they would not like to listen to our words, but we will do anything we can to make them listen.”
Sung Sreylap, a Boeung Kak lake activist who participated in the march from the French Embassy, expressed her disappointment with authorities’ efforts to stymie the protest.
“The NGO law has not taken effect. We are just expressing our ideas in the name of citizens who are dissatisfied with the laws, but they sealed all the roads,” she said. “What if the law takes effect? How many of our freedoms will be deprived?”
Phnom Penh Municipal Deputy Governor Khuong Sreng said that civil society members had not secured permission from the city in advance before marching in the streets.
“The march in Phnom Penh affects public order and the law requires them to get permission before expressing opinions,” he said. “They cannot do anything on their own whims, because the country has rules. We did not forbid [the march] for political reasons.”
But Vanda maintained that authorities’ actions, while nonviolent, were unnecessary in a democratic country.
“The march does not affect national security since it consists of women, children and unarmed organisation officials,” he said. “We conduct it in peaceful means.”
Behind the walls of the National Assembly, the contentious law is still being pored over.
Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker and director of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee Chheang Vun said yesterday that three committees have separately checked the draft law on NGOs and will come together on Wednesday next week to consult once more.
“The three committees will meet for final discussions on Wednesday, and we will ask the president of the National Assembly to set up a workshop in order to discuss [the law] with all the parties in the state on July 8,” he said.
Speaking outside the Assembly, Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Um Sam An, a member of parliament’s legislation commission, yesterday maintained his opposition to the laws, saying that no changes have been made to the draft, aside from some slight corrections of grammar.
“The CNRP does not support the laws,” he said. “[They] deprive the freedoms for social organisations, and we will not raise our hands to support the laws.”