Military police fired shots in the air and severely beat a man in Poipet on Monday after a protest over import taxes at the provincial Customs and Excise Departed erupted into violence.
The crackdown came after enraged cross-border porters began hurling bricks at the department, breaking down the gate and burning tires.
Hean Trein, 26, a representative of the porters, said that protesters dispersed after the shots were fired, but a violent confrontation in which they used their carts to break down the gate of the customs office left at least three injured.
Trein identified the most seriously injured as Mao Son, also known as Sras, 35, who had been badly beaten by military police in the face, kneed in the chest and kicked in the stomach.
Police had handcuffed Son and were attempting to transfer him to a truck when protesters rushed the officers, seized Son back and attempted to send him to hospital.
In the ensuing scuffle, Son sustained further injuries, and lost consciousness, though protesters were ultimately successful in bringing him to hospital, Trein said.
Ran Sreymom, 27, Son’s wife, said her husband had regained consciousness in hospital, but was still confined to his bed.
“Right now, I need some people to help my husband, because he has a serious problem, and cannot get up. I’m afraid he will die of his wounds,” she said.
Poipet police chief Oum Sophal said that authorities had decided to open fire after protesters began pelting them with bricks, one of which struck a customs office security guard in the head.
“We needed to open fire in order to keep the peace and safety, and to restore public order,” he said. “They used violence to break down the gates of the Customs and Excise office, and damaged some cars and the building.”
Trein said that customs official Sem Sam Ath had told them that the office couldn’t drop the tax on imported goods, which is set at the national level, and had allegedly accused porters of obscuring the identity of the real owners of goods to avoid taxes on larger amounts.
He also reportedly asked protesters to cooperate, and assured them that it was the goods’ owners who were liable for the taxes, not the porters hired to bring them across.
However, protesters continued to demonstrate in front of the Customs office, setting tyres alight and smashing the building’s glass façade with bricks until they dispersed.
Chief customs official Chum Hey said the porters had been “tricked” into demonstrating by the businessmen who import goods across the border.
“Those protesters, they do not understand the taxation law,” he said. “They demanded our officials not charge taxes on [shipments of] less than 60 cases. Over 60 cases, they asked that officials drop the price. [These rules] are not described in the taxation law, and we do not respond to that request.”
“We call for the authorities, police and the court to find the businessmen who were behind the protesters to arrest and sentence them,” he added.