Government toughens position on protests

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Freedom Park after cleared from protesters by security officers, many of them in civil aspect and sticks.  Photo Arjay R. J. Stevens (January 4, 2014)

Phnom Penh. Cambodian security forces evicted protesters from the Freedom Park this weekend after the tragic events of Friday where at least 4 civilians died and many others were wounded during a workers’ protest to claim for higher salaries. The situation is tense in the capital after the government banned all public demonstrations and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned the two main leaders of the opposition party, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha on charges of “incitement to provoke criminal acts and provoke social unrest.”  The two political leaders, who went into hiding Saturday, should appear in Court by January 14, according to official sources.

Workers’ protest

Cambodians are showing anger to what they think is an evident abuse of force last Friday when the week long workers’ protest was violently scattered by heave armed police personnel at the Canadia Industrial Park in the Veng Sreng Street.  In a joint statement with other organizations, Licadho condemned the event and called it the “worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in fifteen years.” (Licadho, 2014).  The US State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf said to the media last Friday that “United States deeply regrets the recent loss of life in Cambodia during violent clashes between protesters and government security forces.”

According to the Licadho Statement, police and military police officers were “using live ammunition to shoot directly at civilians near the Canadia Industrial Area on Veng Sreng Road at around 10” Friday morning.  No report shows that protesters did a provocation on security forces, although several of them were armed with sticks and rocks.  “Throughout the day, around 2,000 mixed security forces clashed with protesters and fired live ammunition, threw grenades and tear gas, leaving a rising toll of deaths and wounded.  An unconfirmed number of people were arrested, many of them after being severely beaten by military police.” (Licadho, 2014, para. 5)

Among the protesters were also Buddhist monks that were also object of the official violence to disperse the protest during a national strike to ask for an increase of the minimum wage salary.  Unionists are requesting a meaningful increase in the salary for workers.  After the Ministry of Labor announced an increase to 380,000 Riel (95 US dollars, much inferior to what they request), they went into strike and led a peaceful protest at the Canadia Industrial Area.

Saturday morning 13 arrested protesters were brought to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to face charges under article 218 and 414 of the Penal Code, facing 18 months of pre-trial detention and up to 5 years in prison, as well as fines from 1,000 to 2,500 US dollars.

Social networks, especially Facebook, were flooded with photos of the police crack down on the protest and a general rejection of what is considered a  plainly abuse of authority.

The Opposition’s Rally

The workers’ event coincided with the protests of the Opposition Party at the Freedom Park, where several supporters were asking during days for the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the celebration of new elections, since the Cambodian Rescue Party does not accept the results of last July 28.

On Saturday, security forces took Freedom Park dispersing the protesters and arguing that it was done for security reasons, according to a report by Voice of America.  By its part, the Phnom Penh’s municipal governor issued an statement banning manifestations throughout the city.

According to Licadho, journalists and NGO’s workers trying to document the event, were threatened “by the thugs and prevented from entering the park” while the security forces were destroying the tends installed by the protesters.  (Licadho, para. 4, 2014)

Security forces patrol the city in order to prevent any gathering they consider a possible protest, according to witnesses.  An European citizen residing in Phnom Penh, who prefers to remain anonymous, said to ISeeCambodia by email:

“The situation here is “former Myanmar-like”. Just terrible. Not only yesterday at past-“freedom(?)” Park Government-deployed tough groups with iron bars strolling around beating whoever they find.  This morning, few meters from my house, they have beaten a man unconsciousness. He was washing his car. Now they brought him to hospital. No fairy tail of ‘Democracy in Cambodia’ anymore.!!! It was just a welcomed belief of illusionists (…) It was in fact a non-violent uprising until the strikers were threatened badly by the authorities.”

Rainsy and Sokha into hiding

The main leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokkha were into hiding this Saturday after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned them by January 14 on charges of “incitement to provoke criminal act and provoke social unrest.”

Sam Rainsy issued a statement calling supporters to remain calm “for the interest of personal security and to avoid confrontation with the security forces,” while denying to return to dialogues with the government amid violence.  It was not said if they will attend the Court’s summoned.

“Even though we are in this situation, we still maintain our stand and we are both seeking ways to communicate with countries who are our friends to restore and normalize Cambodia’s current political situation and to achieve our goals,” said Rainsy (RFA, 2014, para. 8)

Official versions

The government spokesman, Kep Remy, declared that the clearance of Freedom Park was to “stop social disorder and to restore calm to the country,” (RFA, 2014, para. 19) while inviting the Opposition to return to the talks with CPP. “The demonstration has negatively affected the country, so please come back to talks. Nothing is better than talks,” he said.

As for the shootings at the workers’ protest, the commander of the paramilitary unit, Chap Sophorn said that the troops “only responded after protesters began throwing rocks at them.” (VOA, 2014, para. 6)

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About Albeiro Rodas

Albeiro Rodas (in Cambodia Sky Ly Samnang), is a MA in Digital Communication, independent journalist and a Salesian of Don Bosco from Amalfi, Colombia, based in Cambodia since 1999. He is the creator of the Don Bosco schools of journalism in Sihanoukville and Kep with young people from poor communities and the founder of the Don Bosco Kep Children Fund. Medal for Social Commitment UPB (2010); among the 100 more upstanding Colombians abroad (Marca Colombia, 2012, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X39xwdGtVXI) and among the 12 Colombians that are making this a better world 2013 (http://www.colombia.co/en/culture/colombians-that-are-making-this-a-better-world.html).

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