Can police maintain the peace?

One of Mao Sok Chan’s sons cries and prays as his father’s body is cremated at his funeral in September.
Mao Sok Chan’s brother cries and prays as his father’s body is cremated at his funeral in September. Koam Chanrasmey

Can police maintain the peace?

After weeks of relative restraint from police following July 28’s national election, the fatal shooting of Mao Sok Chan on September 15 represented the beginning of a more violent approach from the authorities to post-ballot protests in Phnom Penh.

Since Sok Chan and at least eight others were shot on an overpass on Monivong Boulevard, police and security guards contracted by city authorities have cracked down on protests using cattle prods, batons and their bare hands.

With the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party set to hold a three-day rally this week – one that will include marches through the streets – many are asking if more violence is imminent.

“We are concerned about violence at the mass demonstrations because the previous times authorities have cracked down on protesters, even killing one man,” Chan Soveth, a senior investigator with rights group Adhoc, said.

“We’re seeing more forces being deployed, and it’s making people scared to join the demonstrations.”

Political analyst Kem Ley said yesterday that he, too, was concerned violence could break out. Any violence that did occur would doubtless have political ramifications for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, because more voters and the international community had their eyes on Cambodia’s political situation, he added.

“Because the plan is to walk to embassies, I think [the authorities] will use violence,” he said. “The government has no strategy to regain its popularity, just a strategy to crack down and control.

“The more violence the government uses, the more popular the opposition will become.”

National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said police and military police had been instructed not to use violence to deter protesters and and would only “crack down” on protesters who themselves were violent.

While no specific instructions had been given to police beyond that, following the death of Sok Chan – a commuter who had been trying to get home – police would ensure barricades set up would not prevent people living near them from getting to their homes.

“We learned from last time. We don’t want to see confrontation between protesters and local authorities,” he said.

Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said he was confident that the three-day rally, starting on Wednesday, would not descend into violence.

“We have a code of conduct for demonstrators,” he said. “If they join, they must march peacefully.

“We’re exercising our right to demonstrate. Instead of violence … the police and armed forces should instead guarantee our security.”

Violence, however, has been increasing. On Friday, authorities cracked down on a gathering of youths, monks and other community activists at Wat Phnom who were calling for an investigation into Sok Chan’s death.

According to Adhoc, “Daun Penh security forces, together with thugs dressed in civilian clothes, used violence against the protesters”, resulting in a number of injuries.

Among the injured was Boeung Kak lake activist Tep Vanny, who was allegedly punched in the head. Last month, Vanny’s mother, Si Heap, was also injured during a crackdown at Wat Phnom. The authorities have repeatedly labelled Vanny and her group “professional protesters”.

While Vanny’s group is provocative – at any given protest, they can be seen screaming at police from close range – analysts believe authorities have yet to come up with the corresponding “professional” responses needed to defuse tensions.

“[In recent weeks,] the ruling party has become tougher and is ready to use force if necessary to contain, which is not good,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said.

But Mong Hay believes that both sides – protesters and authorities – have also shown restraint since the election.

“To be fair to our forces, who are citizens in uniforms, they have exercised restraint … compared to their behaviour in the past. But I also don’t like to minimise the violence [that has occurred this election].”

Mong Hay said he believed reducing violence at protests was a “question of crowd-control procedures”.

“We don’t have any emergency law regarding curfews.… The government lacks those kinds of skills. So things can get out of hand.”

That’s a concern in the mind of Collette O’Regan, a core member of the Cross Sector Network, which will hold a People’s Assembly in Freedom Park today.

The event, which O’Regan expects will attract about 1,000 people, has not been approved by the Ministry of Interior.

“From our side, there will be no violence, and we really hope there will be no violence from the other side either,” she said.

Multiple government departments and CPP lawmakers could not be reached.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEN DAVID AND MAY TITTHARA

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