Following two dramatic incidents of violence in the capital on Sunday evening, rights groups yesterday pointed to heavy police blockades at dozens of streets around Phnom Penh, including at several city arteries, as being partly to blame.
Clashes broke out at Sisowath Quay on Sunday afternoon when a group of protesters – some of whom were residents trying to return home, according to eyewitnesses – began forcibly dismantling police barricades in the face of massed riot police.
Fighting that left one man dead and several seriously injured later that day at the Kbal Thnal overpass was sparked by protesters pulling down barricades and hurling rocks at police as hundreds unable to cross the flyover looked on.
“I think there were two serious incidents yesterday … and [both of them] were around a roadblock,” Amnesty International’s Cambodia researcher Rupert Abbott said yesterday.
“We can’t say which roadblock was OK and which wasn’t, but there did seem to be an excessive amount of these roadblocks. They weren’t just around government buildings or in sensitive areas.”
A statement released by 26 NGOs and civil society organisations yesterday condemning police brutality highlighted that barricades had created “traffic chaos at key locations” and that police had fired into “a crowd of those caught up in the traffic, including commuters, local residents and demonstrators” at Kbal Thnal.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor at rights group Licadho, said clashes had been sparked after residents waiting for hours to get home became frustrated.
“Authorities blocking the road at Kbal Thnal overpass and everywhere else is a violation of freedom of movement,” he said.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said those trying to cross the overpass were not simply commuters but people with subversive intentions who tried to provoke his officers.
“If they are the people who lived in that area, our officers would have known and allowed them to go home. But they were not. They just wanted to make problems. So for the security of our people, we had to block that road,” he said.
A statement released yesterday by the Permanent Security Command Committee for the Elections, headed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, blamed the Cambodia National Rescue Party for Sunday’s violence.
“CNRP did not only [not] respect the authorities’ decision[s], but also violated its own announcement as well as the agreement on some basic issues made during a meeting between Phnom Penh municipality and its representatives,” the statement says, according to state news agency AKP.
It also commended authorities for their “utmost restraint” during the protests, AKP reported.
John Muller, managing director at Cambodia-based Global Security Solutions, said that although the authorities’ intention in setting up blockades was to protect the public – a goal they largely succeeded in achieving – they went too far.
“With the [overpass], they made a big mistake and they surely regret it. They may have had some intelligence about what was coming down the road that we don’t know about … [as] it completely does not make sense,” he said.
Although riot police remained at the overpass yesterday morning, by late afternoon, barricades had been cleared.