With concerns of more post-election violence at the hands of authorities rising, more than 1,000 police yesterday morning took to Freedom Park for a practice drill, in the process driving out a grassroots organisation attempting to a hold a peaceful gathering.
Police, wearing riot gear and toting shields and batons, obstructed a “people’s assembly” held by the Cross Sector Network and maintained a conspicuous presence at adjacent parkland where the 500 participants gathered instead.
“They didn’t say anything,” CSN negotiation team member Sophea Chrek said of her attempt to work out a peaceful solution with municipal police. “They just said, ‘If you are really Cambodian, you have to understand, so stop it’.”
The confrontation came as at least 10 people were slightly injured when police cracked down on workers from the capital’s SL Garment factory who had gathered outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s mansion near the Independence Monument. At Freedom Park, the mid-morning heat drenched CSN demonstrators in sweat as the crowd waved Cambodian flags and held up homemade banners.
They sang and chanted as a group of military police on the perimeter knocked over a small, makeshift stage and used their batons and shields to herd the protesters.
The event, which was scheduled to continue until 5pm, ended instead at about 11am because CSN’s negotiation team feared for attendees’ safety and because no officials from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party agreed to attend, Chrek said.
Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy president Kem Sokha had been scheduled to speak at the event.
Repeated calls to Phnom Penh police chief Chuon Sovann were not answered yesterday, but Chinese news agency Xinhua reported Sovann saying police were taking part in a half-day training session ahead of the planned three-day CNRP demonstration, which begins tomorrow.
“Let’s face it, it’s the first time there’s been a military drill at Freedom Park,” said Collette O’Regan, a CSN core member. What’s more, she added, officials never told Cross Sector Network members that the park had been reserved for military drills.
Last Wednesday morning, O’Regan said, CSN members met with Phnom Penh municipal officials, requesting permission to use Freedom Park as a venue for yesterday’s assembly – the group’s third gathering of workers, environmental advocates and other interest groups aimed at educating politicians of their respective issues and people of their rights.
After taking their request to the Ministry of Interior, O’Regan said, the ministry denied CSN’s use of the park, claiming it was not registered with the government, that the people’s assembly was illegal and its timing ill-conceived due to disastrous flooding across the Kingdom.
“None of the reasons were because Freedom Park was already booked,” O’Regan said.
Across town, police armed with batons drove away a large group of protesters from the entrance to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house.
The high number of police in Freedom Park seemingly left authorities off-guard to events elsewhere, allowing the garment workers to get closer to Hun Sen’s house than is usually possible for demonstrators.
Worker Neang Ith, 52, said she was struck on the head during the “crackdown” after two trucks filled with military police arrived and began chasing the strikers with electric batons.
“They did not talk with us before they evicted us,” she said, adding they wanted Hun Sen to help resolve their three-month-long dispute.
Fellow worker Yi Sinat, 25, said he was struck on the hands.
“They do not treat us like human beings, but like animals. They did not even ask why we were here.”
But Kheng Tito, spokesman for the national military police, rejected suggestions that police actions yesterday amounted to a “crackdown”.
“We did not crack down on them,” he said. “We just prohibited them from staying where they were in order to protect security.”
Independent union Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union (C.CAWDU) president Ath Thorn told the Post the police’s actions were over the top.
“Beating workers is not good,” he said. “The workers were not demanding anything. They just wanted a settlement, but police responded with violence.”
After the clash, municipal governor Pa Socheatvong arrived at the scene and asked the workers to move on, before entering negotiations with C.CAWDU officials.
Many workers, however, remained in the park.
More trucks carrying riot police arrived just before lunch, but the two groups remained some distance apart.
Some of those on strike declared they were prepared to sleep in the park until a resolution came.
After lunch, however, Thorn addressed workers, urging them to go home while their demands were considered, and the crowd soon dispersed.
Thorn estimated that about 3,000 workers had congregated in parkland outside the premier’s house and in nearby Wat Botum Park for the unannounced demonstration.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached yesterday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL