Almost 850 demonstrations or strikes have occurred nationwide since the year began – a seemingly anarchic average of more than six a day, the General Commissariat of National Police announced this week, blaming politicians, NGOs and trade unions for helping to incite demonstrators and “complicating the security situation” in the country.
But rights groups and the opposition party say that the sheer number of protests proves discontent is widespread in the Kingdom and that instead of playing the blame game, the government should be doing more to address the root causes of dissatisfaction, such as poor labour conditions and rights abuses.
Issues including land disputes, eviction resettlements, human rights and labour issues have fuelled 842 protests so far this year, at times leading to violence, rioting and the blocking of public roads, Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun announced in a report released to coincide with the 69th anniversary of the founding of the National Police on Monday.
“The security situation has become complicated due to the activity of those people who have taken the opportunity [to protest] . . . with interference from politicians, civil society groups and some unions,” he said.
While the report dutifully notes that public and private property had been destroyed, the “lives of investors” had come under threat and security forces had been attacked at protests, it makes no mention of the fact that at least four protesters were shot dead by authorities in early January and that a 16-year-old who went missing amid the clashes is also presumed dead.
“During difficult situations, our police forces struggled and were patient with rude words [and] the throwing of rocks and Molotov cocktails, causing many injuries. We were forced to cooperate with all authorities, especially the military police, to take measures allowed by the law to protect human lives and property against malicious tricks in order to normalise social and public order, security and normal daily life,” the report says.
While authorities argue that live ammunition was necessary to maintain order amid January’s protest violence, numerous peaceful protests and gatherings in Phnom Penh have been violently broken up in recent months, with bystanders and journalists often among the injured.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith explained that while almost 850 protests in less than six months might seem staggering, police statistics include all protests nationwide, whether they occurred in ethnic minority farmlands in Ratanakkiri, hydropower dam sites in Western Cambodia or Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.
“There were so many protests [this year] because the authorities included all protests nationwide that took place, which includes gatherings to protest land disputes, worker protests and political party protests,” he said.
Earlier this week, Interior Minister Sar Kheng partly blamed a spike in petty crime against foreigners last year on a lack of police resources, given forces were redirected to the numerous Cambodia National Rescue Party demonstrations held after the July election.
According to Chantharith, police need to be deployed to all protests, even if they are peaceful.
“For every protest, police are deployed, because police have to protect security and social order. So, police have to always be one step ahead. If nothing happens, it’s fine, but if anything happens that leads to deaths and social catastrophe and we could not prevent it, then that is a serious mistake made by our police forces.”
Opposition party spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday, however, that police were being deployed to protect the ruling elite.
“They deploy the police to protect the power of the individual, not to protect the interests of the people,” he said, adding that as long as widespread injustice prevails in Cambodia, protests will continue.
“This is the root cause of demonstrations, so instead of blaming the political parties or NGOs, the government should try to try to understand the reason and solve the problem immediately.”
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator at Licadho, said that he did not doubt the government’s figure of 842 protests.
“We have observed that so many protests really did occur and thus the government needs to address the reasons that lead workers and people to take to the streets,” he said. “If [the people] could live [on the current minimum wage] and if their land was not grabbed, would they have protested? That is the responsibility of the government.”
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said yesterday that his forces had needed to work and train “harder than before” in light of an increasing number of protests this year.
According to Tito, the authorities expect protests will continue to increase in number if the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition CNRP remain at loggerheads.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH