At least five people were injured yesterday morning when a Labour Day rally next to a heavily fortified Freedom Park was violently broken up by police and security forces – some dressed in civilian clothing – wielding batons and cattle prods.
More than 1,500 people had gathered around Naga Bridge on Norodom Boulevard at about 9am to voice demands for better working conditions and wages, and to greet the arrival of opposition leaders Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha and Mu Sochua.
At about 10am, after the Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders had left, more than 100 helmeted Daun Penh district security guards, along with municipal police and plain-clothed men wielding wooden batons, metal poles and cattle prods, were deployed to disperse the thinning crowd.
A Post reporter heard the forces being given direct orders to attack civilians, who by gathering near the park had defied a newly reimposed ban on meetings in all public areas in Phnom Penh, effective from yesterday until the end of the council election campaign period on May 16.
On Street 108, security guards were seen beating people over the head with batons at random.
One man was dragged off his motorbike and beaten on the ground by a crowd of district security guards in front of journalists and NGO workers.
Lying on a bed in Licadho’s clinic in Phnom Penh – where three of the victims were being treated – the man, 34-year-old Eum Roly, described the attack.
“About 10 security guards used the metal and wooden sticks as well as batons to beat my hands, back and head until I was almost unconscious. Luckily, journalists and NGOs intervened to stop them,” he said.
Roly, a CNRP supporter, said that he had done nothing to incite the attack and that he was at the scene in support of his wife, a garment worker, and others demanding a pay hike in the sector.
“I arrived there to support the workers’ demonstration … I had no intention of cursing or attacking the police or security guards,” he said.
At least three journalists were also attacked, according to the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia.
Another victim of yesterday’s violence, 44-year-old Soy Sok Chamroeun, spoke to the Post shortly after being given five stitches to heal head wounds he received at the hands of security forces.
“A group of security forces beat my forehead and the back of my head as well as my right arm,” he said, adding that he was also ambushed while driving his motorbike.
Sok Chamroeun, a moto driver, said he attended yesterday’s rally with his 21-year-old son “to support union workers in their demonstration”.
“I had no idea the authorities would crack down like this,” he said.
But despite the beating and the ongoing ban on public assembly, Sok Chamroeun says he will join the CNRP with their election campaigns as soon as he has recovered.
“I have a right to join and support any political party,” he said.
Speaking to the crowd from the back of an open truck before the violence, Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Sokha slammed the government’s treatment of its workers.
“In democratic countries in the world, their government always comes out to welcome and encourage their workers every [International Labour Day]. But in Cambodia, the government uses guns to welcome the workers. It is very strange,” Sokha said.
“However, I do not condemn the police who follow the orders of their leaders, and I also thank our police that make an effort to protect our workers.”
The CNRP speeches were interrupted when a car sped into the crowd, onlookers said.
A group of about 100 people surrounded the car, hitting its roof and trying to overturn it, until police brought in a tow truck and hauled the vehicle away with the driver inside.
While rights groups condemned the ban on gatherings and the violence, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party said yesterday morning that it supported measures taken to stop Labour Day demonstrations.
“The CPP strongly supports the Cambodian government’s measures to enforce the implementation of laws so as to ensure the democratic process and human rights for all Cambodian people,” a statement released by the CPP says.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that any further attempts to defy the ban will also be met with force.
“As we have said already, the authorities will take administrative measures against any group of people who do not understand the authorities’ ban [on assembly],” he said.
He added that if the CNRP continues to act “stubbornly” and campaign in the streets today – the first of the council election campaign period – force will, once again, be used.
“If the CNRP are still stubborn against our ban, our authorities will need to enforce the law and crack down.”
At a new conference yesterday afternoon, Rainsy and Sokha vowed to flout the ban and march along the roads.
Sokha said that with the area surrounded by razor wire the CNRP plans to create a new Freedom Park.
“The respect of the law on elections has been abused,” party leader Rainsy said, adding that he has sent a letter to National Election Committee president Im Suosdey calling on him to take action against the authorities abusing the law by banning campaigning.
Suosdey could not be reached for comment.
Speaking to a crowd of about 300 people on Veng Sreng Boulevard earlier in the day, at a ceremony for the victims of fatal military police shootings on January 3, Rainsy encouraged people to file complaints over the crackdown.
“The current ruling group is not afraid of Cambodian courts, they are afraid of the ICC [International Criminal Court]. So we file a complaint to the ICC,” Rainsy said.
Despite roadblocks set up by the security forces impeding their march, activists representing 17 unions successfully delivered letters – with demands including a minimum monthly wage raise to $160 and for courts to drop charges against 23 people arrested at demonstrations in January – to the two political parties.
“Security . . . pushed us around, and we still managed to stay peaceful,” said Kong Athit, vice president of Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, one of the march’s organisers.
Yesterday’s violence seemed to have gone unnoticed by Kirt Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police.
“I didn’t receive any report of police beating anyone,” he said. “I think that nothing happened this morning.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, ALICE CUDDY, MEAS SOKCHEA, SEAN TEEHAN AND DANIEL PYE