PHNOM PENH & WASHINGTON DC —
Cambodian police have forced anti-government protesters from their rally camp in Phnom Penh and banned any further protests against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Hundreds of security personnel armed with batons and shields moved in on the camp in the capital city's Freedom Park on Saturday morning, causing hundreds of protesters to flee. Rights groups said the soldiers were backed by “thuggish civilians” brandishing pipes and beating protesters.
The protesters had gathered in support of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which says it lost an election in July due to fraud and has called for a recall election and for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down. Party members have refused to join the new government, creating an ongoing political deadlock.
Phnom Penh's municipal governor issued a statement banning the use of the park and marches through the city's streets, citing security reasons. The statement cast doubt on whether a three-day opposition protest, scheduled to begin Sunday, would go ahead.
The raid on the park came a day after police opened fire on striking garment workers, killing at least four people.
Witnesses say security forces fired assault rifles at protesters in Phnom Penh as they blocked a road and hurled stones at police. A local human rights group said more than 20 were wounded and at least 10 people were arrested outside the Yak Jin factory near the city. The group condemned the violence and the deployment of an elite unit of soldiers from Special Command Unit 911.
Hun Sen faces a growing challenge to his 28-year rule from garment workers demanding higher pay and opposition forces demanding that he step down and call a new election because of alleged vote fraud in a July poll.
The rights group Licadho said in a statement Saturday that security forces violently evicted protesters from Freedom Park, in the center of the city, a designated area for demonstrations that protesters have occupied for weeks.
Hundreds of police and military police swept into the park around 11 am, clearing the park of protesters, which included monks and women with their children.
Protesters “fled in fear, leaving behind their belongings,” Licadho said. “The forces were accompanied by hundreds of thuggish civilians wearing red arm bands who used [meter]-long steel poles to beat and intimidate the peaceful protesters. Once the park was clear of people, they and the uniformed forces tore down the stage as well as temporary structures that had been built to provide shelter to protesters, destroyed a Buddhist shrine and wrecked audio equipment belonging to the [Rescue Party].”
Licadho staff, journalists and other observers were threatened “by thugs” and prevented from entering the park as structures were destroyed, Licadho said.
“We are dismayed by the continuing use of violence,” Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director, said in the statement. “After yesterday’s tragic deaths, we hoped that the government would begin to exercise restraint, but their actions today show a complete disregard for the rights and indeed the lives of their own citizens.”
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party immediately called for the opposition to return to political negotiations, just hours after the crackdown.
Keo Remy, secretary of state for the Council of Ministers, told reporters the best way forward for the Rescue Party would be a return to the negotiation table and an end to the protests.
“The negotiations are very important,” he said. “Please come back to the negotiating table. This is the best way out. The Cambodian People’s Party always opens the door to welcome all issues that National Rescue Party wants to discuss in order to find a common solution.”
However, Hang Puthea, head of the election-monitoring group Nicfec, said talks at this stage, following such violence, would not constitute a “fair” negotiation.
Meanwhile the Rescue Party’s president, Sam Rainsy, its vice president, Kem Sokha, and Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, have all been summoned by Phnom Penh Municipal Court over the demonstrations.
The three are to appear on Jan. 14 to answer questions related to charges of incitement to commit crimes and “creating chaos to social security,” according to the court summons.