Guarantee freedom of expression to help resolve political crisis

SEAPA is gravely concerned at the deteriorating situation in Cambodia in the aftermath of the highly disputed 28 July elections. In the past two weeks, political violence has spiked as authorities have tried to contain legitimate protests in order to project an image of normalcy as the National Assembly prepared to convene on Tuesday, 24 September.

Just two days before, at least 10 protesters were injured as police-protected thugs forcibly dispersed a peaceful vigil of land rights activists who were also drawing attention to election issues.

Journalists were also targeted in the attack as police and these unidentified men tried to prevent media coverage of the dispersal, resulting in minor injuries among seven local and foreign journalists, and the destruction of the camera of a local news photographer.

The violent break up of the vigil saw unidentified men using sticks, slingshots and electric cattle prods against both protesters and journalists. Security forces reportedly acted initially as cordon to secure the dispersal operation and later joined in the physical abuse.

The forcible dispersal of the vigil at Wat Phnom follows a similar incident two nights earlier against a hunger strike calling for peaceful resolution of the political crisis.

Political tensions continue to simmer as both the ruling party and the opposition held separate oath-taking ceremonies for elected members of parliament on 24 September. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party appointed key party members to cabinet, as the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) held out to boycott the parliament.

One week earlier, one man was shot dead as authorities fired indiscriminately at unidentified protesters who were trying to break through police barricades. The shooting occurred in the aftermath of the dispersal of a huge opposition party demonstration calling for independent investigation of election irregularities.

SEAPA condemns the Cambodian government authorities’ increasing resort to violence as a means to suppress citizen’s right to express their political opinion through demonstrations. Such action, particularly the use of civilian-clothed men to break up protests, has no place in a government that seeks to legitimize its questioned election victory.

Equally grievous is the prevention of media coverage and human rights monitoring of the violent actions of authorities.

We call for an impartial investigation of the use of force in these incidents, and the punishment of officials responsible for casualties and especially those who ordered the unlawful use of force.

Violence in these instances was unnecessary and only serves to increase political polarization making the situation more volatile. Furthermore it casts serious doubt on the government’s commitment to protect civil and political rights of citizens expressing serious grievances – in this case about their participation in politics.

Freedom of expression, as expressed through peaceful assemblies, should be upheld as a crucial element for the resolution of the crisis for these serve as critical barometers of the public mood. Amid continuing street protests, government’s main responsibility is to ensure that no party resorts to violence, so as to ensure the rule of law at all times.