PHNOM PENH —
Police and other security personnel halted a group of mourners on the outskirts of Phnom Penh Sunday that had planned to hold a Buddhist ceremony for protesters killed in early 2014.
At least five people died in a brutal government crackdown during two days of rioting in January 2014, following prolonged protests by factory workers in 2013 and into 2014.
Vorn Pov, director of the development organization IDEA and a worker representative, who was detained and beaten during the 2014 crackdown, shouted at authorities on Sunday as they sought to disperse the mourners.
“The victims’ families are just holding this ceremony according to Buddhism, for the victims, and they are blocked,” he said. “There is no freedom, no justice, in Cambodia.”
Venerable Luon Sovath, a monk and human rights defender, said he had joined mourners to remember those who were killed and injured in the crackdown and to provide a blessing. But the ceremony was broken up by police with electric batons, he said. “They also pushed me, a monk, claimed that I’m a fake monk, and told me to stay in the pagoda, not on the street,” he said.
The crackdown echoed the violent operation undertaken Jan. 2 and Jan. 3, 2014, when members of Special Unit 911 broke up protests, firing at workers. Four protesters were killed and a fifth disappeared and is presumed killed.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche defended Sunday’s crackdown, saying authorities had put up blockades to curb acts of incitement from civil society, who had sought to perform a ceremony without the city’s permission.
“We think that through what they are doing, we can see their intention clearly,” he said. “They use the image of religion to take the opportunity to incite and cause chaos and instability in society. We see the same faces of people who participate with them in various demonstrations. We almost call them ‘multi-sector’ protestors because in every problem, we see their faces.”
Moeun Tola, director of labor program at Community Legal Education Center, posted the blessing ceremony on his Facebook page, saying the ceremony involved burning of incense, bouquets to commemorated the souls of the killed workers, comments from the victims and their families, a joint statement by union representatives and the releasing of balloons.
Am Sam Ath, chief technical investigator for the rights group Licadho, said authorities resorted to pushing and pulling mourners, rather than peaceful negotiations. Meanwhile, there has been no investigation into the killings.
“We need to find justice for the victims, eradicate impunity and put a halt to the culture of violence,” he said. “But we shouldn't have high hopes for now, since there's no breakthrough in finding justice for the victims just yet.”
Interior Ministry's spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment.
In Leakhena, the mother of the worker who disappeared, Khem Sophath, said she was disappointed the authorities blocked the mourning ceremony. “It’s really hard. Since I lost my son, I have been struggling. There’s nobody to support the younger children in the household. And now they are blocking us; it’s just sad.”