More than 200 Cambodian activists and monks submitted petitions to foreign embassies in the capital Phnom Penh on Thursday calling for pressure on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to release 23 protesters held following a violent government crackdown.
Police made no arrests as the petitioners marched to the diplomatic missions of seven governments, defying a ban on demonstrations imposed after the crackdown which has been criticized by the opposition as well as human rights groups as a blow to democracy.
Two days ago, police had briefly detained 11 activists outside the U.S. embassy who had attempted to deliver similar petitions.
On Thursday, diplomats at the embassies of Germany, Sweden, South Korea, Australia, Russia, Thailand, and Malaysia accepted the petitions from the activists, who delivered them on behalf of 187 local and international nongovernmental organizations.
March leader Thida Kus, executive director of local nongovernmental organization Silaka, said the groups hoped for international help in securing the release of the detainees and pressuring Cambodia’s government to refrain from using violence and intimidation to suppress protests.
“Threats and human rights abuses are not good options for Cambodia,” she told reporters during the march.
The detainees have been charged with intentionally causing violence and destroying property and are being kept in a remote facility near the Vietnam border.
They were arrested earlier this month when Phnom Penh authorities imposed a ban on street protests following a crackdown on opposition protests and a labor strike in which four people were shot dead.
The delivery of the petitions Thursday marked the second time activists were able to march freely in the city since the ban, after union and opposition leaders rallied a day earlier to mark the anniversary of the death of slain labor leader Chea Vichea.
Sunday protest plans
The ban on demonstrations will also be put to the test on Sunday, when leaders of nine unions are planning to gather 10,000 supporters in Freedom Park to demand the release of the 23 detainees and push for the doubling of the minimum wage for garment workers to U.S. $160 per month.
Phnom Penh’s City Hall has denied permission for the demonstration, but the unions plan to move ahead anyway, Cambodian Alliance of Trade Union leader Yang Sophoan said.
“City Hall isn’t allowing us to hold the demonstration, saying it’s because of the current situation…. They are allowing us to gather only 10 people,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.
City Hall spokesman Long Dymong said the protest involved too many participants.
Before the Jan. 3 crackdown, the unions had led strikes that shuttered hundreds of factories across the country.
The strikes were backed by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which has led a series of demonstrations demanding Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation and re-elections, saying it was robbed of victory in July 2013 polls marred by fraud and other claims of irregularities.
The protests, along with the worker strikes, have posed a major challenge to the government of Hun Sen, who has led the country for 28 years.
Party leaders have vowed to restart the demonstrations by the end of the month.
Sam Rainsy heads to Europe
In the meantime, CNRP President Sam Rainsy has left for Europe on a trip he said is aimed at drumming up international pressure on Hun Sen’s government to end further violent crackdowns on demonstrations.
Rights groups have labeled the Jan. 3 crackdown the worst state violence in the country in years and the U.N. has raised concerns about government actions against protesters.
Sam Rainsy said before his Thursday departure that now is the right time to push for strong international condemnation of Hun Sen’s government while it is under criticism for violently suppressing peaceful protests.
“There is strong international pressure against Hun Sen’s government,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“There is pressure to stop violence and to bring those responsible for the killings to justice and demand the release [of the 23 detainees].”
“Now the international community is pressuring against Hun Sen’s government, so we need to apply more pressure.”
He did not say when he will return to Cambodia.
The CNRP, which has boycotted parliament over the disputed elections, has long called for a U.N.-backed investigation into poll fraud as well as for sweeping electoral reforms.
The Hun Sen government on Thursday unveiled a set of orders establishing a committee to look into electoral reforms, but the announcement was met with criticism from local civil society groups.
The brief orders set out the composition of the committee and authorized it to conduct research on election laws, study the experiences of other countries, and gather recommendations from legislators, the executive branch, political parties, and nongovernmental organization.
Members of the committee include deputy prime ministers, the interior minister, senior ministers, and officials from the ministries of the interior and justice—all positions held by members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Koul Panha, director of local watchdog group Comfrel, said the lack of opposition members and other non-CPP appointees to the committee meant it would not reflect any views from outside the government.
“The committee doesn’t reflect what the [CPP and CNRP] have agreed will help improve the election process. The committee won’t be able to end any dispute from the election.”
Committee member Sak Setha, a Secretary of State in the Ministry of the Interior, said that although the committee comprises ruling party members, its recommendations will be generated from many stakeholders.
“After the establishment of the committee, there will be a workshop at which recommendations from others, including the opposition, will be accepted,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.