In Cambodia there is no right to freedom of assembly. On 4 January, the interior ministry issued a statement banning all demonstrations and marches. It isn’t clear what counts as a march. Rumours spread that any gathering of more than ten people in Phnom Penh would be broken up and the participants arrested. The ban came after weeks of strikes and protests by garment workers calling for higher wages and improved working conditions. At the moment they earn around £2 a day.
On 3 January the protests turned deadly: workers throwing stones were met with live rounds fired by soldiers from Brigade 911, which has a history of violently repressing enemies of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. Five people were killed, many more injured and 23 arrested, including a prominent trade unionist. Their families weren’t told where they were being held and they were denied access to lawyers. Another union leader was arrested on 19 January.
On 4 January, supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – who had been staging their own protests following the unfair elections in July 2013 – were told they would no longer be able to demonstrate and the party leaders were summoned for questioning at the Court of First Instance in the capital.
The ban has been tested. Activists angry at a development project on grabbed land were briefly detained on 6 January. I saw the same land activists get arrested on 21 January as they were trying to petition embassies of donor countries.
Even the smallest gatherings are being targeted. I went along to Freedom Park – a space created in 2010 for the purpose of holding rallies – on 9 January. A dozen youth activists had gathered to sing songs about non-violence. Everybody was shooed out of the park by baton-wielding security guards in motorcycle helmets and military police armed with AK-47s.
Yesterday, when people tried to enter Freedom Park to demand higher wages and the release of the 23 detained two weeks ago, military police stopped them. This morning, 10 supporters of the radio station owner and government critic Mam Sonando – who was jailed on trumped up charges in 2012 – were beaten by military police and security guards.
Tomorrow, the government is set to have its Universal Periodic Review at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. At the last round it accepted all 91 recommendations but did little to implement them. There is no indication that it will be more committed this time: it submitted its report late and is sending a low-level delegation to Switzerland.
On 20 January, the prime minister, Hun Sen, in power since 1985, called on his supporters to ‘be ready to oppose all acts that lack responsibility and have the characteristics of a coup’. A coup seems unlikely, but people are fed up of being ignored. The question now is whether the government’s use of violence at assemblies is enough to deter opposition supporters and unions from gathering en masse to push their demands. The atmosphere is tense and there are no signs that the ban will end any time soon.