A protest over import taxes in Poipet town yesterday descended into brick-hurling and beatings, with the local governor ultimately pointing the finger at an opposition official and a local union boss for inciting the riot.
The demonstrators, one of whom was left hospitalised following the protest, only dispersed after military police fired several warning shots in the air.
Han Tren, 26, one of those involved in the protest, said that demonstrators fled after the shots were fired, but at least four were injured over the course of the day.
Tren identified the most seriously injured as Mao Son, also known as Sros, 35, who had been badly beaten by military police. Police had handcuffed Son and were attempting to transfer him to a vehicle when protesters rushed the officers, seized Son back and attempted to send him to hospital.
“The military police officer punched Mao Son in the face many times, kneed and handcuffed him, and was going to drag him to their car for detention, but we rushed to fight them and liberated him,” Tren said. “However, during the fight, he was beaten unconscious.”
Protesters were ultimately successful in bringing him to hospital, he added.
Ran Sreymom, 27, Son’s wife, said her husband had regained consciousness in hospital, but he was still confined to his bed.
“Right now, I need some people to help my husband, because he has a serious problem, and cannot get up. I’m afraid he will die of his wounds,” she said.
After sending Son to hospital, Tren said, protesters were met by customs official Sem Sam Ath and acting Customs Department director Nuon Sovuthy, who told them that the office couldn’t drop the tax on imported goods, which is set at the national level, and had allegedly accused porters coming across the city’s busy checkpoint of obscuring the identity of the goods’ real owners to avoid taxes on larger shipments.
He also reportedly asked protesters to cooperate, and assured them that it was the goods’ owners who were liable for the taxes, not the porters hired to bring them across. However, the protesters were unhappy with the officials’ explanation and demanded to meet permanent customs chief Chhuon Hai, who was on a trip to Phnom Penh.
Protesters then continued to demonstrate, ultimately setting tyres alight, knocking down the customs office gate and smashing the building’s glass facade and the windows of parked cars with bricks until they dispersed, according to a police officer.
Poipet police chief Um Sophal said that authorities had decided to open fire after protesters began pelting them with bricks, one of which struck a customs office security guard he identified as Em in the head.
“We needed to open fire in order to keep the peace and safety, and to restore public order,” he said. “They used violence to break down the gates of the Customs and Excise office, and damaged some cars and the building.”
Customs head Chhuon Hai said the porters had been “tricked” into demonstrating by the businessmen who import goods across the border, and called on the porters to simply tell customs officials the names of the owners of the goods so that the owners could be made to pay the appropriate tax.
“Those protesters, they do not understand the taxation law,” he said. “They demanded our officials not charge taxes on [shipments of] less than 60 cases. Over 60 cases, they asked that officials drop the price. [These rules] are not described in the taxation law, and we do not respond to that request.”
Tren, the demonstrator, said that the porters had actually demanded that shipments of less than 30 cases be made tax-free.
“We call for the authorities, police and the court to find the businessmen who were behind the protesters to arrest and sentence them,” Hai added.
However, Poipet Governor Ngor Meng Chroun, in a letter sent to the Banteay Meanchey provincial governor, said that he suspected CNRP deputy Poipet commune chief Chao Veasna and local IDEA union head Din Puthy of being behind the protest.
Veasna could not be reached for comment, but Sao Chandeth, an opposition senator for Banteay Meanchey, denied the claims, saying that as a local authority, Veasna would have been at the protest to simply observe.