Thursday, January 30, 2014

March proceeds peacefully

Demonstrators hold a banner outside the World Health Organization office during a march through Phnom Penh
Demonstrators hold a banner outside the World Health Organization office during a march through Phnom Penh yesterday calling for the release of 23 prisoners who were detained early this month. Hong Menea

March proceeds peacefully

Taking a markedly different approach from Monday’s violent breakup of a peaceful demonstration at Freedom Park, authorities yesterday stood back as about 100 activists marched around central Phnom Penh, delivering a petition to embassies and the United Nations.

District security guards and riot police initially seemed ready to crack down on the group after they delivered the petition to the Singaporean embassy, blocking marchers on Street 51 and warning them over a loudspeaker to clear out or face the baton and Taser-wielding authorities’ wrath. 

The petition calls for the release of 23 detainees arrested at protests earlier this month and an investigation into a police shooting that killed at least four.

“It is not surprising,” Cambodian Youth Network president Tim Malay said at the scene, where some of the 40 marchers holding a banner reading “Free the 23” stood toe-to-toe with riot police. “I think it’s not good for the situation.”

But after a brief negotiation between march leaders and police, authorities allowed the group to continue, on the condition they travelled on motorbikes and tuk-tuks, so as not to disturb traffic.

By the time the group – now aboard vehicles – reached the UN Development Programme office on Street 51, authorities had largely backed off and marchers were again joining the proceedings and swelling their ranks.

Aside from occasionally directing traffic around marchers, who walked on the side of the road without blocking traffic, security forces maintained a hands-off approach as the group visited the embassies of Brunei, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and China. The Vietnamese embassy was closed for the Lunar New Year holiday.

In a text message to a Post reporter after the march, National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said the group was allowed to deliver petitions, but not allowed to march. However, police did not move to stop the activists as “they [were] not affecting to public security.”

The permissive attitude stands in stark contrast with crackdowns on attempts earlier this month to deliver petitions to the embassies of France and the US, which, collectively, led to the temporary detention of 16 people.

A total of 197 rights groups, civil society organisations and others have signed the petition distributed yesterday. Signatories include some of the nine union groups that led a national garment workers’ strike at the end of December.

Those nine union groups met on Tuesday to discuss possible plans to demand compensation from factory owners and international brands for people injured and the families of those killed during crackdowns on demonstrations supporting the strike on January 2 and 3, Mann Seng Hak, secretary-general of the Free Trade Union, said. 

Depending on the outcome of a meeting of an interministerial committee on minimum wage scheduled for February 5, the unions may resume the strike, he added.

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