At least one man was shot dead and four seriously injured Sunday night when clashes broke out between protesters and police at a Phnom Penh bridge on the first day of the opposition party’s mass demonstration.
The man, 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan, was shot through the forehead during the clash at the Kbal Thnal overpass.
“He was just working at his job as a newspaper binder and then was going home. And then I heard he was dead,” said his brother Mao Sok Meth. “He’s never been involved in a protest before.”
Four people were rushed to Calmette Hospital from local clinics with severe bullet injuries to their legs, eyes and neck, said Chan Soveth, senior investigator for Adhoc. More than 10 people were arrested, he said, and at least 10 people were injured.
At the hospital early Monday morning, a group of police followed the victims with the aim of further investigation, according to Soveth, who h3ly condemned the incident.
“The demonstration organised by the CNRP is a peaceful demonstration – why are authorities using violence like this?”
Police, military police and Ministry of Interior officials could not be reached for comment or declined to discuss whether the incident had led to any fatalities.
At local clinics near the overpass, numerous people were brought in for treatment of injuries caused in the clash.
When riot police retreated and citizens were finally permitted to cross over the bridge after more than two hours, many walked with their hands held above their heads. A number of people broke into tears as they crossed the blood-spattered bridge.
The body of Sok Chan, meanwhile, remained on the scene for hours before police attempted to take it away. As they approached, supporters grew agitated and began clashing with authorities again, said Sok Chan’s brother-in-law, Noy Non Khen.
At about 12:45am, the group eventually allowed the body to be removed, but only by a UN car, Non Khen said.
Soveth said the body was brought to the Khmer-Soviet Friendship hospital.
According to Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito, the clash began when a group of “opportunistic” protesters began tearing down barriers on the overpass at around 8pm. In response, military police threw a smoke bomb, which further incited tensions.
Protesters began cursing and throwing rocks at the police, who then fired AK-47s into the air at least half a dozen times.
But the incident was marked by immense police brutality. Police could be seen wielding tasers and kicking already-restrained men in the head. As they lay on their stomachs, police smashed them with batons.
Roads around the bridge were quickly sealed off and drivers searched and threatened by police, but the move did little to calm tensions. By the time police pulled out after 11pm, hundreds of them had been deployed to the scene.
“If they are good protesters, they wouldn’t be protesting [at night]. If someone is protesting at this time, they’re not a clean protester, so authorities have the right to crack down,” said Tito, who refused to answer questions regarding the death, injuries or arrests.
He later told the Post that while he could not comment on any reported deaths, the police had “evidence” to support their actions and denied the police had behaved improperly.
“You can have the film,” he said. “If you look, you can see the evidence, but I cannot tell a journalist.”
Brief history of violence
The incident was the second time violence broke out, marring an otherwise peaceful day of mass demonstrations organised by the CNRP.
At Sisowath Quay, police used water cannons and unloaded volleys of smoke canisters on approximately 100 protesters – some of whom had forcibly removed police barricades and dragged razor wire fences into the Tonle Sap river.
The protesters responded to the use of water cannons by hurling rocks, shoes and pieces of metal from the destroyed barricades at police, which led to about a dozen smoke canisters being fired by the authorities.
One young man was caught in the razor wire as police continued to spray water at him and was convulsing as he was rushed from the scene.
A first aid worker who treated the man said later that although water had entered his lungs, he was sent to hospital with no serious injuries.
Military police later confirmed that one police officer was also injured after getting hit in the head by a rock thrown by protesters.
The CNRP distanced itself from the violence, issuing a statement after the Sisowath Quay incident denouncing the aggression and stressing that their protest was both non-violent and confined to Freedom Park.
“A small group of opportunistic people caused panic by throwing the barbed wire barricades into the river, and shouting to provoke the public,” the statement reads.
“And activity by that opportunistic group which caused trouble and unrest outside of Freedom Park is not the responsibility of the CNRP. We would like to appeal to the authorities to enforce strict measures against that group of people.”
Around the capital and further afield, hundreds of police and military police patrolled key locations, blocking off dozens of roads with razor wire and checking identification of those trying to pass through.
Choun Sovann, Phnom Penh Municipal police chief, blamed the CNRP for yesterday’s early outbreak of violence, saying that anyone present would have witnessed how the protesters actions provoked authorities.
“Police put wire barricades here to protect the King…[as] where [people were gathering] is not far from the Royal Palace. City Hall already told the CNRP they were allowed to have a non-violent protest at Freedom Park, so why did this happen in front of Wat Ounalom?” he said.
Officials from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights arrived on the scene and met with Sovann in a nearby bar to negotiate. Moments later, opposition leader Sam Rainsy also arrived.
“I would like to appeal to this group of youth or any people to immediately stop violence… Stop and go home, it is enough,” Rainsy told the protesters.
A sunnier beginning
The incidences were a far cry from the festival-like atmosphere at Freedom Park yesterday morning. As the leaders entered Freedom Park following marches from the party’s two offices, cheers went up from at least 20,000 supporters gathered to witness the kick-off to the planned three-day-long protest.
Party leaders re-iterated calls for a credible investigation into election irregularities, with deputy president Kem Sokha using foreign embassy statements calling for an investigation as evidence the international community does not recognise the election results.
“The countries that are democratic, the countries that are just all over the world, none of these countries are writing to congratulate [the Cambodian People’s Party],” he said.
Rainsy, meanwhile, heavily criticised the National Election Committee and the Constitutional Council – the two legal bodies tasked with dealing with election complaints – as being under the ruling party’s thumb.
He also pledged that protests would continue until justice was found for voters.
Yesterday evening, following the incident at Sisowath Quay, Rainsy maintained that opposition protests would continue despite the isolated act of violence.
“We are strangers to this incident. We are not involved whatsoever. I went on the spot to condemn those who were involved in any violence, because this is contrary to our position of non-violence,” he told the Post.
“So it doesn’t change anything to our plan to hold a three-day protest.”
Although the Ministry of Interior said the CNRP would only be allowed to demonstrate from 6am – 6pm yesterday, at about 8:30 last night, thousands were settling in to stay the night at Freedom Park.
The opposition previously promised its supporters – many of whom have travelled from far-flung provinces – that the party would organise for them to stay overnight for the duration of protests.
“I am unconcerned [about danger]. I have come to join demonstrations to find justice. I decided to come and stay here for three nights,” Kuch Chantha, 61, from Prey Veng said.
REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA, CHEANG SOKHA, KEVIN PONNIAH, AMELIA WOODSIDE, KOAM CHANRASMEY, MAY TITTHARA, LEANG PHANNARA, DAVID BOYLE, KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, SHANE WORRELL AND ABBY SEIFF