Opposition lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sakphea were viciously beaten and left seriously injured yesterday morning as a protest outside the National Assembly against Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Kem Sokha descended into violence.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party denied any involvement in organising the demonstration, despite CPP district politicians being present among the crowd and Prime Minister Hun Sen warning the previous day that such a protest would take place.
From his hospital bed in Phnom Penh, where he was nursing a double arm fracture, a broken nose, chipped front teeth and facial swelling so severe his right eye was closed over, Chamroeun yesterday spoke of his horror as “at least 10” heavily built men attacked his vehicle as he attempted to leave the National Assembly.
“They broke my car windows and dragged me out. It happened so fast. I lost consciousness for a little bit,” he said.
“I don’t think they were civilian; they were strong men, police or military or something, they were strong. At least one or two had a mask on, but I couldn’t recognise them.”
A video of the attack that quickly began to circulate on social media yesterday showed Sakphea being dragged out of the back seat of a white SUV and thrown onto the ground, where he sustained at least three heavy kicks to the face from his assailants, before they dispersed and his driver was able to help him back into the vehicle. At least one of his attackers could be seen holding a walkie-talkie.
Another video, of what appears to be the final moments of the attack on Chamroeun, shows a man with his face masked by a green cloth approaching the politician as he lays on the road and savagely stomping on his chest.
Photos widely shared on the internet showed both politicians bleeding heavily from their faces, as well as severe damage caused to their vehicles, which Sakphea said yesterday was caused by protesters wielding metal bars.
As many as 2,000 protesters had assembled outside the National Assembly early yesterday morning to demand the resignation of CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha from his role as National Assembly vice president.
Protesters accused Sokha of deception and inciting hatred between the government and opposition, and presented a petition to the National Assembly for his removal.
“Kem Sokha is a political provocateur and he creates a culture of discrimination encouraging Cambodians to hate each other; he is a terrible person who has to be toppled from his position,” said protester Tith Tray Vet, who identified himself as a CPP supporter.
When asked why there were so few police in the vicinity and nobody managed to respond in time to prevent the attacks, Tonle Bassac commune police chief Sok Sam Uot said officers policing the demonstration had been relieved of their duties because the protesters had already left the scene.
“They [the protesters] dispersed and returned home, so our forces went for lunch,” he said. “When we received the notice [of the attacks], we hurried back to intervene, but it was already over.”
A witness at the scene, who preferred not to be named, said that while the vast majority of the protesters had left the area, dozens of young men remained behind and waited outside the gates of the National Assembly.
It was members of this group, the witness said, who later carried out the attacks.
Other protesters moved on to join a crowd that had assembled around Sokha’s home, which sustained broken windows and damage as it was pelted with rocks over a six-hour period.
According to CNRP deputy director-general of public affairs Kem Monovithya, who is Sokha’s daughter, her mother was inside the house throughout the onslaught.
Monovithya said CNRP officials had directly sought intervention from Interior Minister Sar Kheng as reports of Sokha’s house being surrounded came through, but no help from police was forthcoming for the duration of the assault.
She added that Sokha had personally called Kheng three times during the incident but that the minister had never picked up.
The events came just hours after Hun Sen had warned of a protest being launched outside the National Assembly against Sokha during a speech given to supporters in France, where he is on an official state visit.
“When tomorrow they play in Phnom Penh, do not be angry with them; and that play may see you lose your position in the National Assembly,” he said, referring to Sokha.
Yet CPP spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday insisted neither Hun Sen nor senior party officials were responsible for the demonstration, despite admitting those in attendance were CPP activists.
Instead, Eysan appeared to direct suspicion towards Chamroeun’s driver.
“We have some doubts about why the driver did not drive off immediately and why he kept running around the car,” he said.
Meanwhile, deputy governor for Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district Ly Royamie, a CPP politician who was seen among the protesters, said she only attended to “monitor” the event on the instructions of Russey Keo Governor Thuy Sakhorn.
Sakhorn could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Other senior figures within the CPP publicly denounced the violence, with Kampong Speu province representative Hun Many, who is Hun Sen’s son, taking to Facebook to call for an investigation into the events.
“I condemn violence against people, especially parliamentarians, and call for the authorities to take action in order to find and arrest the suspects who committed these crimes,” he wrote.
The US Embassy also denounced the attacks, and called for a “thorough and transparent investigation, to maintain order at the National Assembly, and to ensure the safety of politicians from all parties”.
The embassy refused to comment on the possibility of a separate investigation involving US personnel, given that Chamroeun holds dual US-Cambodian citizenship.
“We are aware of reports that a US citizen was a victim in the attacks at the National Assembly today but have no additional comment due to privacy reasons. We also have no comment on possible law enforcement investigations,” the embassy said yesterday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA