Civil society this year marked International Human Rights Day much differently than last year, out of concern that any public gatherings would be likened to joining a colour revolution to overthrow the government.
Last year, about 11,000 people across the country gathered to celebrate International Human Rights Day.
From December 2 to December 10 last year, a series of 35 events in 17 provinces took place in rural Cambodia, where grassroots groups including communities affected by land conflicts, youth networks, associations, and monks gathered to mark the day.
This year, International Human Rights Day celebrations were mostly held indoors within the capital, with only a handful of events in the provinces.
Instead, a group of 103 civil society organisations issued a joint statement calling for justice and respect for human rights from the government.
It said respect for fundamental freedoms is a basic requirement for a functioning civil society, which is also guaranteed by the Cambodian constitution and international law.
“On the occasion of International Human Rights Day, we, the undersigned members of Cambodian civil society, call for an end to attacks on human rights defenders and civil society groups and the lifting of restrictions on fundamental freedoms,” the statement said.
UN Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith yesterday called for restoration of democracy and a vibrant civil society, noting Cambodia should return to a path of multi-party democracy to ensure full freedom for civil society and journalists.
“This is a time for all Cambodians to reflect on the path the country is currently taking. Restoring democracy and accepting vibrant civil society is not only about human rights, it is also about paving the way for sustainable development and lasting peace,” she said.
The opposition CNRP was last month dissolved in the wake of its leader Kem Sokha bring jailed on treason charges for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government through a colour revolution with US aid.
“I am particularly concerned about the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on November 16, the banning of 118 CNRP members from political activity for five years and the reallocation of all the party’s local and national seats to unelected members of the ruling and other parties,” Ms Smith added.
Soueng Sen Karona, a senior investigator for human rights group Adhoc, said he regrets not marking this year’s rights day in the same way as last year.
“The government has restricted freedom of assembly, and the space for civil society has been dramatically diminished in recent months,” he alleged, adding that several NGOs, trade unions and associations also face serious intimidation.
And more recently, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights was threatened with closure over allegations that it serves foreign interests, he added.
The land rights group Equitable Cambodia was suspended for allegedly violating the Law on Associations and NGOs and has not been allowed to re-open even though the legal suspension period had passed, Mr Sen Karona said.
“Activists have been silenced for perceived criticism of authorities and many communities and grassroots groups are denied the right of peaceful assembly,” he alleged.
“The latest crackdown on civil society and the dissolution of the main political opposition party took place in parallel with an unprecedented silencing of critical and independent media.”
“Cambodia’s criminal justice system has long been used to silence activists and human rights defenders. The human rights situation in 2017 was the worst ever,” he claimed.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator for human rights group Licadho, said NGOs were too scared to gather en masse this year because they don’t want to be accused of involvement in the colour revolution conspiracy.
“We would like to request the government to rethink putting pressure on human rights activists,” he said.
“We still have hope that the government will make the situation better, following democratic values and respect for human rights.”