At least three people were injured, including an opposition lawmaker, Monday night when police used batons and water cannons to disperse crowds protesting the removal of a stupa honoring 1997 grenade attack victims.
Police removed the contentious stupa—the fifth stupa to be removed or destroyed—with a land excavator at about 5:30 pm Monday. Then dozens of police engaged in a standoff with more than 100 people, including about 20 opposition party protesters, who had gathered at the site across Sothearos Boulevard from the National Assembly.
The municipal and military police initially showed restraint, but by 8 pm police operating water cannons and converging on protesters with batons turned the park into chaos.
At one point, police in riot gear were lined up as their commander, apparently drunk, paced back and forth in front of them, barking orders. Minutes later, the police marched into protesters. Those who resisted were beaten with batons.
One Cambodian woman in her early to mid-40s was knocked unconscious temporarily and taken to Calmette Hospital where she received two stitches in the back of her head, according to a rights worker.
Sam Rainsy parlimentarian Cheam Channy suffered shoulder bruises when he resisted from being moved from the site. “I was hit five times on the shoulders and head,” he said. Several other Sam Rainsy parliamentarians also were caught up in the scuffle. At least one person was injured earlier in the night.
A human rights official who initially commended the restraint shown by police, later criticized them for using excessive force.
“These people were unarmed, they just stood their ground,” said the human rights official. “Police violated basic procedures.” At least one police officer also suffered a black eye in the scuffles.
The rights worker maintained that police provoked the showdown when they called in water cannon trucks on the pretext of cleaning the street. When protesters and lawmakers still refused police calls to move from the site, highpowered cannons from two fire trucks were focused on the crowd.
“They deliberately are trying to provoke a situation. They want to take this a step further,” said the rights worker at the time.
Muon Khim, deputy municipal police chief, said at the site that Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara had ordered the removal of the stupa and the park cleared for a national ceremony. Muon Khim said he did not know which ceremony Chea Sophara was referring to.
A second police official who would not disclose his name said Chea Sophara ordered the streets to be cleaned for the visit Wednesday by a Thai delegation headed by Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai.
Deputy Municipal Police Chief Chea Saran offered another version: He said the Ministry of Public Works and Transport had ordered the stupa removed for the visiting Thai delegation.
Chea Sophara passed by the stupa in his vehicle shortly before the police used force to move the crowd.
He told Agence France-Presse that he had been patient long enough. “Sam Rainsy has caused disorder throughout the country and is a bad example to the people,” Chea Sophara said. “The laws are not made for Sam Rainsy alone.”
Municipal Police Chief Suong Chheangly and Municipal Military Police Commander Chhin Chanpor, who were overseeing the operation, would not speak to reporters.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Monday night sharply criticized the removal of the stupa. He noted that Chea Sophara had said last month that he would abide by the decision of King Norodom Sihanouk, who was requested by Sam Rainsy to intervene in the dispute.
“I think the fact they removed the stupa shows disrespect for the King,” Sam Rainsy said.
Sam Rainsy said he didn’t go to the scene, even after he received reports of injuries, because he didn’t want to encourage more violence.
“The people can fight, they can resist on their own,” he said. “They can show that the Sam Rainsy Party is not always Sam Rainsy…..If I were on the scene, it would attract many people and attract more violence. There is no more stupa to defend.”
Sam Rainsy also said that he believed the stupa’s removal was a reprisal against him for supporting the O’Russei Market vendors wo recently protested in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh residence.
Chamroeun Phuong said she witnessed police scooping up the stupa late Monday afternoon.
In an attempt to protect the monument, she and a number of other women gathered around the monument as it was picked off the ground. But she said the group let go of the monument when police warned them they would be killed by the concrete structure if they did not move.
According to Chamroeun Phuong, police used a stone to smash the glass at the front of the stupa to remove an urn containing the ashes of those slain in the grenade attack. Police officials questioned at the site said they did not know the location of the stupa or the urn containing the ashes.
Sam Rainsy indicated that he would erect a bigger stupa although not immediately, partly because authorities might expect that. “I will wait for the King’s opinion and we will choose our time.”