Thursday, 4 November 2010

Protest park opens in Cambodia

By Sopheng Cheang, The Associated Press

via CAAI

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - The Cambodian government, widely criticized for quashing dissent, opened a small park Thursday to accommodate demonstrators. But opponents said the park's isolated location would render any demonstration useless.

Officials say that Democracy Square, more commonly known as Freedom Park, would facilitate full security for protesters and prevent general public disorder. The park, once a public garden, has no special facilities except for 10 public toilets.

"The creation of this Democracy Square allows us to easily provide good security and public order but it is a site where people can express their opinions freely and legally," said Nhem Saran, chief of Phnom Penh's Transportation Office, at the official opening ceremony.

The 60-by-200 metre (200-by-650 foot) site is close to the U.S. Embassy and Wat Phnom, a Buddhist temple that marks the city's centre, but is not near any major government offices. Its isolated location makes it nearly useless as a place to voice dissent, opponents said.

Chea Muny, president of Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, a prominent workers leader who has been active in staging demonstrations, says the creation of the park is aimed at muffling the voices of protest.

He said the protesters want to rally in front of the government institutions and other places where their demands can be heard by those in power.

The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is democratically elected but tries to limit dissent, often through legal means such as lawsuits. Journalists, human rights activists, opposition lawmakers and other critics have been convicted or jailed for defaming Hun Sen and his allies.

Last year, Cambodia's Parliament approved a bill banning demonstrations by more than 200 people. The law also requires protesters to seek official permission five days ahead of a planned rally. Lawmakers from the country's main opposition party, the Sam Rainsy Party, have described the law as a clear setback for Cambodia's democracy.

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