The government’s haphazardly enforced crackdown on public gatherings continued yesterday as independent radio broadcaster Mam Sonando and a crowd of supporters were able to gather just east of Freedom Park, though not without violence.
While one man was badly beaten by Daun Penh district security guards, two more slightly injured and another arrested and later released, Sonando was still able to deliver his remarks in support of his ongoing bid for a TV licence, albeit with the intermittent interference of security and police, who periodically shepherded protesters further eastward.
Protester Pheng Leng, 46, was pinned against a wall by a scrum of Daun Penh security guards and bashed repeatedly in the head with a walkie-talkie after scuffling with guards over fellow demonstrator Chan Horn, 69, who was being dragged away for distributing materials emblazoned with the emblem of Sonando’s Beehive Radio.
Horn and fellow demonstrator Sar Sorn were also slightly injured after they came to Leng’s aid.
“I saw those security forces hitting a man until he got a head injury, so I screamed at them to stop hitting that man, but they went after me, an old man,” Horn said, adding that he had been struck in the leg and kicked by guards.
Sorn, a protester from the Borei Keila community, said she had tried to flee when the beating started but was hit in the leg and fell to the ground.
“We did not come to protest against the authorities, but we came to ask the government to grant a television licence to Mam Sonando so that he can set up an independent TV channel that will broadcast real news about what is going on in Cambodian society,” Sorn said.
After the early confrontations, however, a larger group of protesters, bolstered by Sonando’s arrival, were able to move into the parkland on the eastern side of Naga Bridge, where Sonando delivered several speeches as police and security looked on.
“The people aren’t asking for power, they’re only asking for a television licence. Why do you not give it to us?” he said. “If they gave us the licence, the problem would be finished, but they use the police and armed forces to crack down on us.”
Periodically, a line of police and security guards slowly edged the group eastward before halting, allowing the protesters to regroup a few metres away and continue their speeches. By about 10am, Sonando had left and the protest had dwindled to several groups of 20 to 30, who remained in the park talking as security forces sat idly by.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche yesterday defended the interference, saying the protest had been unapproved and that the police action had been necessary to prevent “anarchy”.
“We informed Mam Sonando that we did not agree to let the people gather until the court declares the results of the investigations on the accidents caused by previous demonstrations,” he said. “Therefore, his action right now is against the law.”
However, Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that the municipality’s justification was “absurd as it can be”.
Virak also characterised the authorities’ half-hearted attempts to stop Sonando’s protest – and an opposition demonstration on Sunday that was ultimately allowed to march through the city – as an effort by the government to stifle dissent while at the same time not engendering further ill will.
“They don’t want major protests to lead to the removal of Hun Sen, but if they ban it completely, they can antagonise and frustrate the population even further,” he said. “So there’s a balance.”
“If they crack down brutally, they will probably anger the population further, and the population might come out in force, and they don’t want that,” he added.