Violent clashes between security forces and opposition supporters erupted in the capital on Tuesday morning, leaving nearly 60 people injured, some of them seriously.
Mu Sochua, a popular representative of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested, among other party officers, in the aftermath of the violence.
Mu Sochua had tried to lead a non-violent protest to Freedom Park, an assembly area that has been closed since demonstrations in January, but her supporters say they were attacked by security guards, and this time struck back.
About 40 security guards were injured in the ensuing violence, some stripped of their uniforms, others beaten with flags, according to witnesses.
Long Dimanche, spokesman for Phnom Penh municipality, said 37 security guards were injured, 22 seriously. He blamed Rescue Party supporters for the violence and said leaders could face criminal charges.
Mu Sochua had sought to lead a demonstration against the ban on the park. Around 300 supporters arrived at Freedom Park at 8 am, according to the rights group Licadho. About 60 district security guards had assembled to prevent their entry into the park, Licadho said.
When one group of protesters tried to hang a “Free the Freedom Park” banner on razor wire barring entry, a group of security guards moved to beat them back.
“While we tried to put the banner on the wire with [Rescue Party member] Real Khemrin, the security guards pushed us away,” a protester told VOA Khmer on condition of anonymity. “They beat us and electrocuted us, making us angry and fight back.”
Some protesters turned against the guards, using their own batons to beat them, despite attempts by other protesters to stop them and calls from opposition leaders to remain non-violent.
The clashes ended when gas canisters were fired into the crowd.
“Today’s violence follows a six-month period of severe restrictions on peaceful assembly, which has often involved the use of brutality against civilians by security forces, with district security guards often at the front line committing the most violence,” Licadho said. “To this day, neither a single security guard nor any commanding authority who ordered the use of violence to disperse peaceful protests has been brought to justice.”
Licadho Director Naly Pilorge called Tuesday’s events “extremely troubling.”
“Licadho deplores the use of violence by any party, urges that a full, fair and transparent investigation take place as soon as possible, and calls for the exercise of restraint by all parties,” she said.
Am Sam Ath, lead investigator for the rights group Licadho, said the violence demonstrates a “deep hatred” that has developed between protesters and guards, who have faced off often since Freedom Park was closed as part of a larger ban on public assembly following major pro-labor and pro-opposition demonstrations in January.
“This violence is not under control,” he said. “Even the security guards still cannot control their members.”