Protesters demanding the release of 23 imprisoned activists and workers clashed with security guards at a demonstration in central Phnom Penh on Sunday, with the crowd then beating at least three plain-clothes men they suspected of having been planted among them to stir up trouble.
Two of the men—one with a bloody wound to the head—were afterward driven off by some of the protesters and handed over to police in Chamkar Mon district’s Boeng Keng Kang I commune, who sent them on to municipal police headquarters.
The protest was called by a group of nine trade unions hoping to gather a crowd of 10,000 at the city’s Freedom Park to demand both higher garment sector wages and the release of 23 men arrested earlier this month during two days of protests outside Phnom Penh factories.
But instead of the thousands promised, the protesters only amounted to a few dozen, who mostly appeared to be motorcycle taxi drivers and anti-eviction activists from the Boeng Kak community. They were prevented from entering the park—officially off limits since a January 4 ban on demonstrations—by about 50 Daun Penh district security guards. A few hundred armored riot police stood by behind them.
After more than an hour of a tense but peaceful standoff
between security guards and the few protesters, the violence began with a bit of pushing and shoving along the front lines and quickly escalated.
A line of metal barricades that had stood between them was quickly tossed aside, and both sides began exchanging kicks and blows. Everything from helmets to billy clubs, water bottles and sandals were thrown back and forth. A few people were bloodied, bruised and trampled.
Amid the melee, one man among the protesters was seen striking out at the helmeted security guards with brass knuckles.
Another young man was seen hurling a brick-size chunk of concrete in the security guards’ direction, although he did not hit them. That same young man was soon chased down by the crowd, which suspected him of being an agent provocateur, and beaten on the head until bloody. Rights workers and monks on the scene quickly surrounded him, as well as another man the protesters had turned on, and ushered them into a tuk-tuk that quickly drove the pair off in the company of a few monks.
Moments later the protesters chased down and started beating another man, but relented and let him go when he produced an ID card.
The two men in the tuk-tuk were driven to Boeng Keng Kang I police headquarters, commune police chief Kol Sophat confirmed.
“We have sent them to the municipal police; we could not keep them here long,” he said, referring further questions to municipal police, who could not be reached.
Chorn Chanren, of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, who came to observe the demonstration, said he was hit in the ankle by a rock thrown by the security guards. He blamed the guards for starting the clash.
“Their crackdown on the people was very cruel because they [the demonstrators] had nothing in their hands and the security guards used force,” he said. “The people held the two men because they were suspicious of them because they used sling shots and hit people.”
Song Sreyleap, a well-known anti-eviction activist who joined the protest, said the detained men were part of the government’s shadowy “third hand.”
“They used the third hand to create violence, since the people were demonstrating peacefully,” she said. “We had to hold them because they used sling shots and [brass] knuckles; this is the third hand of the government.”
Opposition CNRP lawmaker-elect Yim Sovann, who had come to observe the demonstration, was also struck in the leg. Mr. Sovann said he was hit by a rock that came from the direction of the security guards.
Chan Soveth, senior investigator for rights group Adhoc, who was at the scene, said at least 10 people were injured in the day’s clash, including two journalists.
The security guards have come under much criticism from protesters and rights groups, who say the guards have no legal authority to use violence or apprehend people.
“Using the security forces to crack down on people contradicts our laws. They don’t implement the laws properly because they haven’t been trained to deal with demonstrators” said Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, who was also on hand for the clash.
The city has defended the use of security forces as a necessary measure to control unruly and violent protesters.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche blamed the day’s clash on the protesters.
“The demonstrators threw the rocks at the security forces first, so they had to take action to protect themselves. And the demonstrators did not follow the Ministry of Interior or City Hall announcement.”
Both the municipality and the ministry had rejected the unions’ request to demonstrate at the park, which the city opened in 2010 expressly for such events.
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