Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen moved Tuesday to lift a month-old ban on public protests by workers and opposition forces, but warned that government supporters have an equal right to rally, raising fears of violence if the two groups clash.
In January, Cambodian police fired on striking garment workers, leaving five dead in what rights groups described as the worst state violence against civilians in the country in years.
Authorities later instituted a ban on public gatherings, violently dispersing opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)-led protests that had been held alongside strikes by garment workers.
“If the opposition party has the right [to hold demonstrations], government supporters will also have that right,” Hun Sen said at the opening of a power plant in Sihanoukville, adding that police might find it “difficult” to keep the two groups apart.
Cambodian rights groups and opposition figures welcomed Hun Sen’s call to provincial authorities to lift the protest ban but voiced concern that rallies held at the same time by political opposition and government-backed groups could lead to violence.
“We must avoid violence and confrontation,” rights group Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday.
“The authorities must protect people equally and without favor toward any political party,” he said.
Son Chhay, a senior member of the opposition CNRP, described Hun Sen’s warning of demonstrations by government supporters as proof of official bias toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
“The prime minister should look after the whole country, not just the ruling party. We must govern [Cambodia] according to democratic principles,” he said.
Meanwhile, about 100 rights advocates, land activists, monks, and CNRP members rallied on Tuesday outside Cambodia’s Supreme Court to demand the release of 21 protesters arrested after security forces fired on striking garment workers on Jan. 3, killing five.
Before the crackdown, strikes by workers complaining of low wages had shuttered hundreds of factories across the country, bringing Cambodia’s garment industry to a virtual standstill.
“We demand not only that the court release on bail those who were arrested, but also drop all charges against them,” rally participant and land activist Tep Vanny told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Also taking part in the rally, CNRP leader Sam Rainsy called on the court to release the 21 detained protesters.
“The government must halt its violent actions, release the detainees, and investigate and punish those who have killed people—especially those who killed the garment workers,” he said.
Court clerk Sok Phally meanwhile told RFA that he has given the activists’ petition to free the 21 to court officials for their consideration and that a court hearing will be scheduled “soon.”
“The case has already reached the court directors’ hands, and we will speed it up,” he said.
Reported by Vann Vicha and Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.