Amid the haze of smoke grenades and swinging of batons yesterday, authorities sent a violent message to would-be protesters and activists in the Kingdom: The ban on public assembly imposed earlier this month, while sporadically enforced, can and will be brutally upheld.
A peaceful rally led by Beehive Radio president Mam Sonando outside the Ministry of Information on Monivong Boulevard was dispersed at about 10am yesterday after hundreds of military police charged in formation, unloading volleys of smoke canisters and liberally using their batons to clear away stragglers.
Security guards hired by Daun Penh district authorities – the same untrained, helmeted men employed against protesters at Freedom Park on Sunday – also joined in, clubbing anyone, including some journalists, who failed to get away quickly enough, then chasing bystanders down side streets.
More than 10 were left injured, according to counts by rights groups. Licadho claimed six had been hospitalised, while Adhoc said three suffered serious injuries. More than 10 motorbikes and tuk-tuks were seized by the municipality.
Sonando himself escaped unscathed and was whisked away to safety by supporters.
Long Dimanche, City Hall spokesman, said that authorities only clashed with protesters because they had “disrupted social order” after defying a ban on the protest.
“We do not want to clash violently. That’s why we denied [them] and sent a formal letter to Mam Sonando explaining the reasons for the rejection. But he insisted and disobeyed the authorities’ orders,” he said.
“[Yesterday morning’s] march was going to lead to the worst chaos, because the protesters were incited to curse and clash with the authorities violently.”
The protesters had peacefully, albeit vocally, set up on the road directly outside the closed gate of the ministry, snarling traffic for more than half an hour after authorities blockaded parts of the boulevard in response.
Sonando and his followers were calling for increased radio bandwidth as well as a TV licence, requests that were shot down by the Information Ministry earlier this month due to an alleged lack of frequencies available.
Beehive claims it has been singled out for unfair treatment due to its critical stance towards the government.
A video of yesterday’s crackdown obtained by the Post shows Sok Penh Vuth, deputy district governor of Daun Penh, dressed in office attire and hitting a civilian over the head with his bullhorn during the crackdown.
Penh Vuth, who was seen at the protest directing district guards and calling for Sonando’s arrest, in the video points to a helmeted man sitting on his motorbike, accuses him of protesting, then hits him hard on the side of his head with the bullhorn before allowing guards and plainclothes men to beat him viciously with batons.
The man, bloodied 35-year-old motodop Sok Ny, is not seen retaliating in the video.
“The security forces and civil officials hit me with their fists and batons many times until my head was bleeding and I fell to the ground. But they did not stop even when they saw me fall,” Ny, who says he was only in the vicinity because he had dropped off a police officer, told the Post at the scene.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that he “did not see anything wrong” with Vuth’s actions.
“They represent the public power, the local authority down there.… Without cooperation, they can [take] any kind of forceful means to restore [public order],” he said.
Siphan added that anyone remaining in the vicinity of a protest could be considered a protester, apart from the press. “If I were there, I [would be] kicked out too,” he said.
An assistant answered Vuth’s phone yesterday and said the deputy district governor was unavailable for comment, while Daun Penh Governor Sok Sambath could not be reached.
After fleeing the scene, Sonando said he would keep urging the government to meet his station’s demands, but added it would be useless to condemn the authorities’ actions yesterday.
“I do not criticise this crackdown, because there is no point. If we criticise them but they still do not obey the laws and use their power against us, it means the condemnation is not useful, because they won’t change,” he said.
Surrounding streets were quickly cordoned off and cleared following the baton charge, with protesters retreating or being chased down side streets. Many regrouped in parkland near Wat Phnom and the US embassy before being moved on again by authorities.
The rally was intended to begin at Freedom Park, the site of clashes between district guards and union-led protesters a day earlier, but, due to the presence of security forces there, about 500 people had gathered at the nearby Naga Bridge by 9am, when Sonando arrived.
After delivering a speech, the radio broadcaster led a march to the ministry.
As the group approached Sunway Hotel, it encountered dozens of police and Daun Penh security guards blocking the road. The protesters surged to the next street south and began running towards the Information Ministry past City Hall, where hundreds of gendarmes waited.
As gendarmes were ordered onto the road, about 100 metres away from them a tense standoff ensued until finally a five-minute warning was given and the military police charged.
Following the crackdown, with an outlet needed to vent their anger at authorities, protesters and bystanders targeted a man found with a slingshot and ball bearings – a possible government-placed provocateur – as a Vietnamese spy.
Cambodia National Rescue Party security tried to frogmarch the man away from the crowds to a safe place but were soon mobbed by those trying to attack the man, deemed to be a “yuon, not a Khmer”. He was eventually spirited away on a motorbike to the offices of rights group Licadho.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA