Thousands of opposition party supporters held a rally in Cambodia’s capital Tuesday to mark Human Rights Day, calling on the government to improve the country’s rights record and investigate electoral fraud charges.
Around 6,000 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters gathered in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, waving national flags and chanting slogans in support of democracy and calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy addressed the crowd, urging the government to shore up its flagging rights record on the 65th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“Our country’s human rights situation is in decline,” he said. “We are committed to continue our struggle to uphold human rights.”
Sam Rainsy blamed “corruption and dictatorship” for the worsening rights record, reiterating his party’s claim that Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stole the July 28 election due to poll irregularities, including more than a million names missing from voting lists.
He likened the CNRP’s goals to those of the recently deceased anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, saying his party would “find success” like the South African icon.
CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha told supporters they had been “stripped of their right to vote” to change the country’s leaders and make Cambodia a better country.
“[The electoral body] lost our votes,” Kem Sokha said, referring to the government-appointed National Election Committee, which the opposition party wants totally revamped as part of proposed electoral reforms.
“We promised that we would raise the [minimum] wages [of garment and footwear factory] workers to U.S. $150 a month, but now we can’t because they stole our votes,” he said, referring to a CNRP campaign pledge to nearly double wages from U.S. $80 currently.
Following the gathering in Phnom Penh, where hundreds of police officers looked on but did not interfere, the two opposition leaders traveled to Siem Reap province where they led another group of thousands of supporters in a second rally.
Thousands of garment workers and government officials also attended other events to mark the United Nations-backed Human Rights Day.
Rights groups say land disputes are one of Cambodia’s most serious human rights issues, though the country has recently seen a number of worker strikes over factory conditions and low wages that have ended in violent police crackdowns.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd said in a statement to mark Human Rights Day that Washington had noted an “improvement in respect for civil liberties” in the country, demonstrated by the “largely peaceful” conduct of the elections.
But he noted that Cambodia “still faces challenges … in such areas as land disputes and evictions, corruption, and trafficking in persons” and called on the government to partner with civil society groups to identify solutions that benefit the people.
In Myanmar, members of 20 human rights organizations adopted a nine-point statement calling on the government to sign additional binding agreements to improve its rights record as part of events marking Human Rights Day in Yangon, Mandalay, and Mawlamying.
Also included in the statement were demands that the government work harder to educate the public about their rights and to end arrests and other actions against rights activists.
Aung Myo Min, of the rights group Equality Myanmar, said at the ceremony in Yangon that the people deserve human rights and protection by the government if those rights are violated.
“Although it is written in the 2008 constitution that the people are entitled to freedom of expression and assembly, actions can be taken against us if our activities are deemed harmful to the stability of the state according to current law,” he said.
“So these current laws are not meant to protect the people, but rather to control them,” he said.
A parliamentary committee is currently reviewing Myanmar’s constitution, written under the former military junta, to determine whether it should be amended and will submit its findings in January.
Myint Aye, co-founder of Human Rights Defenders and Promoters (HRDP) said that despite a transition to a reformist and nominally civilian government under President Thein Sein in 2011, rights abuses still occur frequently in Myanmar.
“We still have violations of human rights in Myanmar, even though the government says it is ruling according to international standards,” he said.
At another event to mark Human Rights Day in Myitkyina township, in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, Mya Aye, a leader of the pro-democracy 88 Generation Student Group, said rights would not improve until the country ends civil war with its armed ethnic minority groups.
“As long as there is war, there will be victims of war and violence,” Mya Aye said at the event in Nawnan village.
“Human rights won’t improve as long as there is civil war in the country.”
Following talks in recent months, the government and rebel groups have agreed in principle to sign a nationwide cease-fire agreement as a first step towards permanent peace after decades of fighting between government troops and ethnic armies. They also agreed to hold a dialogue to devise an enduring political settlement.
In addition to forming a federal union, ethnic rebels hope that political dialogue with the government will provide their groups with greater autonomy in rapidly reforming Myanmar as the country embraces democratic reform after shaking its decades-long yoke of a repressive military regime.
In Vietnam, where the one-party Communist leaders have been accused of blatant rights violations, the authorities had taken measures beginning from the weekend to prevent activists from commemorating Human Rights Day, rights groups said.
“Over the weekend, police and plain clothed security agents forcefully disbanded gatherings in Hanoi, Nha Trang, Danang, and Ho Chi Minh City marking International Human Rights Day, and assaulted young bloggers and young activists, the Paris-based Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) said in a statement.
“[A]ctivists in Vietnam are facing harassments, threats, police violence and arrest simply for publicly advocating their rights,” it said. “We remind Vietnam that the right to promote human rights is a legitimate activity ….”
Vietnam was last month granted a seat as an Asian representative, along with China, on the U.N. Human Rights Council, the world body’s top human rights forum, despite criticism of its rights record and a harsh crackdown on dissent in recent years.
On Tuesday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) distributed a petition demanding that the Vietnamese government release prominent dissident blogger Nguyen Van Hai, better known by his online pseudonym “Dieu Cay.”
Hai, who was honored with the organization’s International Press Freedom Award several weeks ago, is serving a 12-year jail sentence for “conducting propaganda against the state” after blogging on politically sensitive topics.
CPJ said it had already received 8,400 signatures and hoped to have a total of 10,000 by the end of Tuesday to “send a strong message to Vietnamese officials” about Hai, whose health has deteriorated significantly since he was imprisoned.
U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam David Shear said in a statement Tuesday that Vietnam must take “concrete steps to improve its [rights] record,” including to release all prisoners of conscience, to allow Vietnamese to express themselves, and to protect religious freedom.
“We have broad consensus in the United States that significant progress on human rights is necessary for closer bilateral ties and to further cement the many gains we have made across a broad range of economic, political, social, and security issues,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service and by Kyaw Myo Min and Myo Zaw Ko for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated from Khmer by Samean Yun and from Burmese by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.