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Cambodia talks progress on rights amid escalating turmoil

Says violent crackdown on protests this month was 'necessary'

Cambodia talks progress on rights amid escalating turmoil

A protester is taken into custody by riot police and district security guards on Monday outside the Ministry of Information. Police used smoke grenades and sporadic violence to clear demonstrators calling for an independent TV station (Photo by Abby Seiff)

Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh

January 29, 2014

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Late Tuesday night Cambodia wrapped up a review of its human rights record by assuring the United Nations and member states that it was taking pains to improve its rights record and maintain peace amid ongoing political turmoil.

“I promise you that we will make our efforts on human rights in Cambodia, develop progress and improve… even though we find our challenges, even though we just came from the civil war, we will do our best to be in line with your recommendations,” Mak Sambath, deputy chair of the government’s Human Rights Committee, told scores of delegates who had gathered for the Universal Periodic Review which is held once every four and a half years. 

Just hours after Sambath concluded his remarks in Geneva, dozens of riot police and district security guards in Phnom Penh stalked a small group of activists around town. Their offence was that they were going to embassies and UN offices to drop off a petition calling for the release of 23 activists and protesters believed to have been wrongfully imprisoned. 

In spite of Sambath’s pledges to the contrary, Cambodia has shown little interest in aligning its rights record with international standards. The past month has seen a startling backslide on human rights and the worst government sanctioned violence in 15 years. 

People in Cambodia are regularly targeted, harassed and persecuted for speaking out against oppressive government policies,” PEN International said in a statement set to coincide with the UPR. “The human rights situation in [the] country has deteriorated markedly since 2009, when it last underwent the Universal Periodic Review.”

The fact that activists were only followed today in some ways represents a modicum of progress. In two separate occasions this week alone, police violently clashed with groups seeking to hold demonstrations in a public park initially established for such protests. On Sunday, at least eight were injured by baton- and electric-shock wielding security forces who sealed off the park from garment workers seeking to protest over the minimum wage. Though few workers showed up after hundreds of riot police were deployed around the park’s perimeter early Sunday morning, the closure drew the ire of land rights activists and even passersby who swelled the ranks of those seeking entry.

A day later, supporters of broadcaster Mam Sonando gathered to call on the Ministry of Information to grant him a television license and increased bandwidth for his popular, independent radio station. When blocked from the park, they moved to the ministry, where hundreds of riot police were deployed to clear the area. At least ten people, including bystanders and journalists, were injured during the sweep – some of them beaten by riot police.

Public protest in the capital has been banned since early January, when government-hired thugs violently evicted demonstrators from Freedom Park before razing the stage and temporary housing set up by the opposition party and its supporters who have been protesting the results of the July 2013 election. The move came just one day after riot police opened fire during a clash with garment workers, killing at least five and wounding more than 20.

Such moves have been necessary, the government continues to insist.

“Measures taken for the social order and stability of the society is very necessary,” Ministry of Interior Secretary of State Pol Lim told the UPR delegation, explaining that the government’s right to due so is enshrined in the law on public assembly.

But in many ways, the crackdown appears to have missed its mark. Far from frightening protesters, it has simply drawn more people out.

Mixed among those dedicated to non-violent means are a growing number seeking a fight. On both days, groups of eagle-eyed protesters were forced to physically restrain people armed with rocks and other weapons.

During the chaos, demonstrators could be spotted with spiked brass knuckles and keys threaded between their fingers.

Long-term pro-opposition supporters have branded such people as instigators – government spies sent to sow chaos and undermine the demonstrators – but in truth most are simply a different group of angry supporters.

 “Come kill me if you want,” a man shouted at police during a demonstration earlier this month. “I would rather be dead than alive in a country like this.”

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