Cambodia’s Freedom Park will soon be free no longer as the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen plans to turn the 1.2-hectare plaza in central Phnom Penh into a commercial site.
On Tuesday Hun Sen said the decision to place the park in downtown Phnom Penh was a mistake because demonstrations at the site scared away tourists visiting the city.
“We were wrong in the first place to have Freedom Park at the current location which is close to the historical site of Wat Phnom,” he said during public remarks, referring to a famed temple. “If there are demonstrations, tourists wouldn’t want to visit it.”
Also known as Democracy Square, the park was set up in 2010 as the designated venue for protests, and it has been the site of demonstrations over labor rights, land grabs and general protests against Hun Sen's 31-year rule.
While it is the designated protest zone, the park has been closed on occasion to demonstrators. It has also been the site of brutal beatings as pro-government thugs have attacked demonstrators defying its closure.
Freedom Park has proved to be a favorite rallying spot for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and its supporters.
Wat Phnom is a Buddhist temple built in 1372. Standing at just higher than 88 feet, it is the tallest religious structure in Phnom Penh and is a focal point of the city.
Another tweak at the U.S.
The most likely place for a new Freedom Park is at the edge of the city. But Hun Sen also said he may move it in front of the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh. The park is already close to the American mission, about a six-minute walk from the embassy.
“Freedom Park must therefore be relocated to outside [Phnom Penh], or if someone is not satisfied with its new location then it should be placed right in front of the U.S. embassy,” he said.
It was the second time in as many days that Hun Sen has decided to tweak the United States publicly.
During a ceremony opening a new Coca-Cola bottling plant in Phnom Penh on Monday, he called the Washington two-faced for its criticism of Hun Sen’s ongoing crackdown on dissent, while post-election protests led to some arrests in the U.S.
‘A strategy to frustrate people’
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for rights group Licadho, called the move a strategy designed to frustrate government critics.
“I see it as a strategy to frustrate people who would like to express themselves,” he said. “Unless there is a clear explanation from the government about its intention to move Freedom Park to the new location, people will think that the government is paranoid about protests and demonstrations.”
Future Forum Director and political observer Ou Virak told RFA that he believed greed may be at the heart of the move.
“I think the government might be pressured by business people to consider relocating the Freedom Park as there are growing number of skyscrapers in that area,” he said.
It would not be the first time that an area was grabbed for development by the Cambodian government in Phnom Penh.
The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents—has been a major cause of protest in Cambodia and other authoritarian Asian countries, including China and Myanmar.
In one of the most egregious land grabs, some 3,500 families were evicted from the land surrounding Boeung Kak Lake in the capital.
Reported by Thai Tha for RFA's Khmer service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.