Since Friday, a total of around 600 people have been marching peacefully along six national roads toward Phnom Penh by day. By night, they often slept on the roadside, having been turned away by pagodas on orders from the patriarchs of the country’s two main Buddhist sects.
Despite such obstacles and a series of police attempts to establish a heavier presence on the city’s outskirts, the marchers were able to arrive at the parliament building, where the crowd nearly doubled. Around 1,000 people raised flags and balloons Wednesday morning, holding up signs calling for a number of changes.
Outside the National Assembly, three members from its human rights commission accepted copies of various petitions handed to them by the different groups.
According to local rights organization Licadho, one of the petitions drafted by a group called the “Friends of December 10” called for an end to forced evictions and violent crackdowns on protests, and for the judiciary to be fully independent.
Among a cluster of union members were signs calling for a minimum wage of 1 million riel ($250) for the country’s civil servants, whose poor pay has long been blamed for rampant corruption in the public sector.
Others said garment workers need to earn the equivalent of at least $140 a month - $12 more than the current minimum wage, which was raised from $100 in November - as they still don’t earn enough to cover their basic living expenses.
Yorm Bopha, an active member of the Boeng Kak community, sat in the shade against the unrelenting sun, clutching a “Free the 18” sign referring to land activists, monks and opposition party members who were all arrested over a period of a few days last month.
Of these, 11 have been convicted and seven remain in pre-trial detention on a range of charges that rights groups say are politically motivated to silence dissent.
“We are ready to execute our campaign to free the 18 prisoners who got arrested from the CNRP [Cambodia National Rescue Party], land activists and the normal villagers,” she told The Anadolu Agency.
Speaking at an event in Freedom Park later that morning, the EU’s ambassador to Cambodia acknowledged restrictions had been placed on the freedom of assembly earlier in the year in the wake of protests over the disputed outcome of the 2013 election and the $100 minimum wage.
“I think the park is a symbol of democracy here in Phnom Penh,” Jean-Francois Cautain told an assembled crowd of several hundred people.
“It was very sad that this symbol was out of use early this year and was surrounded by barbed wire. This was a very sad symbol of democracy in Cambodia.”
A statement emailed by the U.S. embassy on Wednesday quoted Ambassador William Todd as saying Cambodians should “take this day to rededicate themselves to promoting basic human rights and freedoms.”
He urged the government “to engage with the opposition and civil society to address the issues of impunity, nepotism, and corruption, which together have a corrosive effect on society, weakening economic growth and stability and undercutting progress made on human rights.”
The day marking human rights comes near the end of a year that saw five people shot dead by government forces while striking for a higher minimum wage, during which security guards repeatedly beat protesters trying to assemble peacefully around Phnom Penh.