Violence again erupted in Phnom Penh yesterday, as security forces blocked demonstrators from Freedom Park, where they intended to protest against low wages and the continued detention of 23 people.
Nearly 10 people suffered minor injuries, while police arrested two people, Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for rights group Licadho, said.
Deputy Phnom Penh municipal police chief Choun Narin identified the men arrested as Pheng Pha, 32, and Ham Huth, 18.
The demonstration was the first attempted at Freedom Park since January 4, when district security guards tore down tents and chased off protesters who had occupied the area for 20 days, demanding Cambodia hold a new national election and raise the minimum monthly garment wage to $160.
“You can’t stop people who are hungry for freedom,” Mu Sochua, a Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker-elect, said a few hours after yesterday’s clash. “You can’t feed them with bullets and batons.”
While no reports of shooting have emerged, Daun Penh security guards and riot police struck demonstrators with batons and cattle prods, while protesters, in turn, threw projectiles, punched and kicked authorities around Freedom Park, Naga Bridge and surrounding areas.
An already-tense atmosphere boiled over by the bridge when a riot police officer was kicked in the groin by a protester. Immediately after the blow, police rushed the crowd, while protesters threw garbage, rocks and other projectiles towards combined police and security forces, which responded in kind.
Violence spilled into the street, with security guards beating mostly young men with their batons.
With the crowd overwhelming security guards as clashes moved toward Wat Phnom and Russian Federation Boulevard, some monks pleaded with demonstrators to break up developing fights.
At about 9:30am, three monks stood around a tuk-tuk as several security guards sat inside, while protesters appeared to attempt to drag them out. After a couple of minutes, the monks cleared a path for the tuk-tuk to make its way down Norodom Boulevard, away from the ensuing chaos.
During the violence, the armed and shielded riot police stood in formation near the bridge, leaving district security guards – whom city officials admitted last week are largely untrained – to wade into the crowd.
Within about 30 minutes, the violence had largely subsided, with riot police standing guard and demonstrators standing on the bridge and near Freedom Park, at times cheering and singing. By about 11:30, tensions deflated to the point that riot police stood docilely while young women and men took photos with their smartphones of themselves standing in front of the armed officers.
Nine unions and associations, among them the Independent Democratic Association of Informal Economic (IDEA), Free Trade Union (FTU) and Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA), planned the demonstration last week, only for City Hall and the Ministry of Interior to refuse them permission to hold it.
A formal request the trade groups filed with City Hall noted their demands of a $160 minimum wage and the immediate release of 23 people – among them IDEA chief Vorn Pov – arrested during demonstrations on January 2 and 3.
“What we’re concerned [about] is this country is not a democracy right now,” Cambodian Food and Service Workers’ Federation president Sar Mora said yesterday. “I worry that it will make the country into a military regime.”
The unions’ letter to Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong last week outlined plans to bring about 10,000 people to Freedom Park for the demonstration. But in a meeting with protest leaders, City Hall officials said the gathering posed too much of a security risk for the municipal government to approve of it.
“Right now, the authorities need to protect the public order and social security,” City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said yesterday. “Before the unions and other community groups supported the CNRP, and after that, they made violence and some people were seriously injured and killed during their violent protests.”
Speaking as scuffles between motorbike helmet-wearing security guards, demonstrators and bystanders took place nearby, CITA president Rong Chhun said violence threatened and carried out by authorities was less troubling than the implications of standing idly by as armed men decided what comprised a legitimate protest.
“Right now, we are not scared about a crackdown,” Chhun said to a group of journalists, as the animosity between the crowd and police intensified. “We must struggle for our people, workers, teachers, civil servants … if we’re afraid about the crackdown, we will lose everything.”