PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Over 400 protesters defied City Hall’s ban on a planned protest yesterday and gathered peacefully in front of the National Assembly to protest against the draft association and NGO law, which they say can be used to shut down organizations that criticize the government.
Protesters started to amass at the National Assembly around 11 am, after arriving from four separate starting places in the city.
The four groups separated into smaller groups when police attempted to block their marches through the city.
Security guards were also on hand to block them from approaching the Assembly building while its members were meeting. At about 11 am, when the session was over, security forces withdrew the barricades and allowed the protesters to approach the building.
Freedom of Expression?
“They [security guards] tried to abuse our rights as citizens,” said Bov Sophea, a representative of the Boeung Kak Lake Community Association.
It led a group of protesters that marched to the Assembly from National Road 1.
“People have the right to walk and gather,” Ms. Sophea said. “But what the authorities did today was to abuse us, violate the national constitution, and our human rights,” she added.
Those marching to the assembly said they were harassed by security guards. On the road to the National Assembly they were told to remove T-shirts that stated opposition to the draft law in bold script. Security guards also tried to round up small groups of protesters.
Officials at City Hall, however, had a different opinion on the protest it tried to ban, as well as the protesters.
Long Dimanche, a spokesman for City Hall, described them as “professional protesters” and said the ban was intended to teach them a lesson.
“Did they ask permission from the government for these protest activities?” he asked. “Do they call these activities ‘freedom of expression’? I see it this way: this was not to express an idea, but to pressure the National Assembly.”
He also warned that protesters could face unspecified legal action in the future.
Protesters sang and chanted slogans. They used the tune of a popular song, “I’m Not Satisfied,” but switched the lyrics to express opposition to the draft legislation.
Critics of the law say it gives the government too much power over the registration process for associations and NGOs, allowing it to shut NGOs for reasons that are not clearly defined.
Government officials, however, have defended the legislation, saying it is necessary to ensure transparency and the rule of law. They have also said that some NGOs are using foreign donations to drive political agendas as well as to personally benefit directors of NGOs.
The draft law is now being reviewed by three commissions at the Assembly. After the commissions discuss the draft they will send it back to the permanent committee with their comments. No date has yet been set for a full debate by lawmakers.
Opposition Party Support
CNRP lawmakers Um Sam An, Real Camerin and Nhay Chamroeun ventured outside the Assembly building and joined the protesters at around noon.
Mr. Sam An said his party agreed with the protesters.
He said it gives the Interior Ministry too much power, allowing it to register or deny registration to all associations and NGOs. It can also suspend existing associations and NGOs, he noted.
Mr. Sam An said the CNRP believes the power to shut associations and NGOs should be in the hands of the judiciary and not the executive branch of the government.
“It should be the courts who decide if an association or NGO deserves to be censured and disbanded, not the Interior Ministry,” he stressed.
Crackdowns and Blacklists?
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Lichado, said the draft law could undermine Cambodia’s development because it could hinder the work of associations and NGOs working towards this goal.
“The right of associations to form and be active in the country is severely under threat. Certain associations may have no ability to register at the Interior Ministry,” he warned.
Any registered association could be subject to a crackdown by the government and the members could face jail, he added.
Foreign nationals could also be deported, he said. (Additional reporting by Donald Lee)