Another chapter of confrontation and violence was written at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park yesterday – only this time the by now familiar narrative was flipped on its head.
When the smoke cleared, it was Daun Penh district security guards, not protesters, who filed into local hospitals, while a quartet of opposition politicians was in police custody facing potential incitement charges.
Mu Sochua, Keo Phirom and Men Sothavarin were all initially detained inside the heavily fortified Freedom Park during a morning demonstration on Naga Bridge that saw protesters savagely attack the security guards – traditionally the all-too-willing enforcers of government-approved crackdowns – who attempted to forcefully disperse them.
The trio was taken to the police station, where Ho Vann, another Cambodia National Rescue Party politician, was also detained after showing up later in the day.
A crowd of protesters, journalists and rights observers gathered at the police station after the arrests, while about 50 armed police ensured they kept their distance from the gates.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito and other sources told the Post late last night that the accused CNRP members were still being held at the municipal police headquarters.
A fifth CNRP lawmaker-elect, Real Camerin, is also wanted for arrest, party whip Son Chhay said.
“Why don’t [police] summon security forces who have always beaten people for questioning?” Chhay added.
According to Chhay, Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Chuon Sovann told him that the lawmakers-elect were arrested following complaints from injured Daun Penh security guards and said that the case could become “complicated” if they are charged with incitement.
While Chhay was allowed to enter the police station yesterday afternoon, he was not permitted to see his colleagues or the complaints filed against them.
Sovann could not be reached for comment yesterday, while deputy police chief Chuon Narin declined to answer a Post reporter’s questions.
Speaking on the phone yesterday evening, Camerin said he was not concerned about the arrest warrant and was still in Phnom Penh.
He said that yesterday’s violence from CNRP supporters was the backlash from regular beatings from the security guards.
“I did not use violence, the third hand [security guards] have beaten people many times and people have kept patient, but this time they could not keep calm, they fought back,” he said.
The morning began peacefully, as more than 200 opposition supporters gathered on Naga Bridge at about 8am to show solidarity with the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s campaign to “free Freedom Park”.
But at about 8:30am, after a group hung a banner on the razor wire surrounding the park, 30 to 40 baton-wielding security guards were unleashed and began pulling down the sign while forcefully attempting to disperse the demonstration.
Addressing the crowd, Sochua condemned the violence. “All this is evidence . . . We know batons come from the security’s hand,” she said.
Daun Penh security guards, who officials have previously admitted are untrained and essentially function as thugs-for-hire, have been used extensively to crack down on protests in the Freedom Park area since last year’s national election.
However, yesterday, the tables were turned. After the violence broke out, the district security guards attempted to flee the scene, as protesters chased them away from the park.
Post reporters witnessed numerous guards being isolated and beaten by the crowd.
After stripping one security guard, the crowd burned his clothes on the street.
In a moment captured on video, one guard was seen lying unconscious on the ground, before having a rock smashed against his head.
When an ambulance arrived, protesters blocked it from reaching the scene and turned it away.
Speaking to the Post at Calmette Hospital at about noon yesterday, Daun Penh District Governor Kouch Chamroeun said protesters had used bricks, wooden sticks and plastic pipes filled with concrete to attack district security guards and officials, injuring about 40 in total.
While most sustained only light injuries, two guards with possibly life-threatening head injuries remained in intensive care, Chamroeun said.
Yesterday evening, a Calmette Hospital official who declined to be named said that three guards had suffered serious head injuries but that all had now regained consciousness.
He said that 19 others with less serious injuries remained in hospital and that 17 had been discharged after receiving treatment.
An incensed Sok Penh Vuth, the Daun Penh deputy governor who is often seen during crackdowns directing guards to attack protesters – sometimes using violence himself – said that he was personally assaulted.
“The protesters had come prepared with rocks, sticks and pipes with concrete inside. They rushed to beat me and many other civilian officials and security guards while we were trying to get them to end their protest and go home,” he said.
“We did not receive any order to crack down . . . and I had no baton when they beat me.”
Daun Penh security guard Ouk Kongkea, 28, told the Post from a hospital bed that protesters had overwhelmed the guards.
“The group of protesters were so many more than us, and they used sticks and rocks to beat and throw at us while we were choking on the tear gas that the police used to stop them from being violent,” he explained.
“I have just been wounded a little bit on my hands and shoulders.”
Sorm Sochhoeun, 34, a security guard from the district’s Phsar Chas commune, vowed revenge.
“I had no baton or wooden stick in my hand to defend myself when they beat me. I was hit on the shoulders and was brutally kicked in the forehead,” he said, lying on a hospital bed with bandages wrapped around his head.
“I promise that I will beat them in revenge if they ever return to protest here again,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak told the Post that the accused CNRP members would be “responsible” if any of the victims die.
Shortly after the violence, the CNRP released a statement demanding the release of the elected lawmakers without condition, calling for the barricades to be removed from Freedom Park and saying it supported non-violent demonstrations.
In a statement yesterday, City Hall condemned the “illegal gathering”.
“The gathering led to grave violence and the competent authorities were forced to disperse them to normalize security, safety and public order . . . City Hall would like to appeal to the competent authorities and institutions concerned to continue investigating and determine the targets of the perpetrators and those who are responsible . . . and bring them to justice,” the statement said.
But Nay Vanda, rights group Adhoc’s deputy chief human rights investigator, said that, based on his organisation’s observations, the security forces had started the violence.
Ou Virak, chairman at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that the only thing surprising about the violence from protesters was how long it had taken.
“I’m completely surprised that it has taken this long for a violent reaction from the CNRP supporters or the people frustrated by the government’s response to expression,” he said.
“You look at the injustice [in society], there must be a lot of frustrated and angry people out there . . . the security forces have not been behaving themselves anyway, and they’ve pretty much acted as thugs as well. It’s pretty upsetting to see how this has all played out.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH, CHEANG SOKHA AND DANIEL QUINLAN