Bruised but Not Beaten, Protesters Return to Wat Phnom

Anger over the violent attack on peaceful protesters at Wat Phnom on Sunday night simmered at the site Monday morning, with the same demonstrators returning to confront their alleged attackers and detaining a police official they accused of spying.

Shortly before 11 p.m. on Sunday night, police and gangs of mostly young men in plain clothes wielding batons, electric prods and slingshots attacked a group of mostly female anti-eviction activists conducting a hunger strike to protest the government’s decision to convene the inaugural session of the National Assembly despite disputed election results.

Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the military police, on Monday denied that police had used force on Sunday night.

“Our authorities just went to disperse the people, but did not use violence and were not holding weapons,” Brig. Gen. Tito said.

The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh called the attack “disturbing.”

“The incident last night at Wat Phnom, which included violent attacks on Cambodian citizens and human rights observers, is a disturbing development for the security situation in Phnom Penh,” said embassy spokesman John Simmons in an email on Monday, requesting that the government conduct a thorough investigation into the incident.

Roughly a dozen people were injured in the vicious assault by the gangs of men, including rights workers and journalists, and as of Monday, three protesters were still recovering from their injuries at Calmette Hospital.

But if the attack Sunday was intended to intimidate, it had the opposite effect.

“My injuries don’t hurt. What hurts is that the authorities are paid to suppress their own people. They intended to kill us,” said Sou Sophal, 35, a Boeng Kak villager and one of some 30 protesters who was attacked Sunday night but returned to Wat Phnom on Monday morning.

When the female demonstrators arrived at the popular tourist site at about 8:30 a.m. Monday, they immediately accused the pagoda’s security guards of perpetrating the violence. When the guards quickly fled in the face of the women’s anger, the crowd next turned their rage on a man with a video camera they accused of being a government spy.

Encircled by the angry crowd, the man—who said his name was Sar Chenda—fielded a volley of questions, initially claiming to work for Voice of America (VOA), the U.S.-backed media organization. Finally, worn down by the women’s interrogation, he admitted to being a member of the government’s Anti-Terrorist Unit.

“I just came here to film the activity of the people and report back to my boss,” Mr. Chenda said. “People at work told me not to reveal where I am from,” he added.

Mr. Chenda was eventually escorted to safety at about 11 a.m. by U.N. staffers. At the same time, four police officers armed with assault rifles and riot shields jumped out of a pickup truck parked nearby, but quickly got back in their vehicle and sped away when the crowd approached and taunted them.

Throughout the remainder of the morning, the protesters de­tained, interrogated and eventually released several other individuals accused of spying for the government—including a former Boeng Kak activist—jokingly referring to supposed infiltrators as VOA reporters.

At the same time several hundred military police officers wearing riot gear gathered inside the grounds of the Council for the Development of Cambodia, located adjacent to the pagoda. The police did not leave the compound, however, except for a few dozen who patrolled the exterior of Wat Phnom.

At 4:30 p.m., a procession of about 50 monks led the demonstrators from Wat Phnom along the riverside toward the Royal Palace. At a barricade manned by riot police on Sisowath Quay, the monks stopped and delivered a speech to the authorities.

The monks requested that police desist from using further violence against citizens and, specifically, refrain from patrolling pagodas around Phnom Penh and intimidating monks.

“We came here today to ask the police and military police to…stop harassing the monks,” said But Buntenh, one of the monks.

The authorities, But Buntenh said, “promised that they would bring peace to the people, but the violence is still occurring. They have betrayed their promise.”

After delivering their intended message via megaphone, the monks left the riverside peacefully at about 5 p.m.

(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy and Phorn Bopha)

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