The U.N. and local human rights groups have condemned the government’s violent eviction of CNRP supporters from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Saturday, as well as its indefinite ban on public protests in the city.
On Saturday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court also summonsed opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to court on January 14 over their alleged connection to violent confrontations between military police and protesting garment workers in Pur Senchey district on Friday that left five demonstrators dead and more than 20 wounded from police gunfire.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha would heed the summonses and remain in the country until their court date.
At about 11:30 p.m. on Saturday, more than 100 men, many wearing motorcycle helmets and armed with metal poles, iron bars, sticks, axes and batons, rushed into Freedom Park and chased a few hundred CNRP supporters and monks out of the park, indiscriminately beating those who tried to flee.
Hundreds of riot police and military police had cordoned off the park and looked on as the groups of civilians, wearing red armbands, and municipal security guards, attacked anyone in the park and proceeded to tear down tents, stages and a Buddhist shrine that had been constructed over the past three weeks by CNRP demonstrators calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down.
Phnom Penh municipal authorities issued two concurrent statements on Saturday saying that although demonstrations in Freedom Park remained peaceful, the CNRP’s protests were spawning violent activities elsewhere.
“Based on this situation…the Phnom Penh municipality has decided not to allow the CNRP to continue demonstrations at Freedom Park or marches along the streets in Phnom Penh starting from January 4, 2014, until security and public order is guaranteed,” the statement says.
In the second statement, the municipality denied having used violence to clear Freedom Park, despite eyewitnesses and photographic evidence of monks being hit by municipal security guards with truncheons.
The Interior Ministry also issued a separate statement Saturday explaining that the constitutional freedom to assemble in the city would be temporarily suspended.
“In this context and to guarantee security and public order, demonstrations through gatherings and marches must stop temporality until security and order are restored to their normal state,” the ministry said.
Following the emptying of Freedom Park, the CNRP called off a planned march through Phnom Penh on Sunday, which the opposition claimed would have been the largest yet in the capital.
Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, expressed concern at the government’s actions to suppress freedom of peaceful assembly.
“I am of the view that any governmental measure has to meet the tests of the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality,” Mr. Subedi said in an email.
“So far as the clearing of the Freedom Park yesterday, and the deplorable shooting into the demonstrators killing five people on Friday are concerned, they do not seem to meet these tests and there should be a thorough and credible investigation into these tragic events,” the U.N. envoy said.
As to how the ongoing political deadlock might be resolved, Mr. Subedi said “serious reform of the system of governance…will have to be done sooner rather than later.”
Local human rights groups Licadho and the Community Legal Education Center issued a joint statement on Saturday rebuking Mr. Hun Sen’s government over its actions to quell demonstrations.
“We are dismayed by the continuing use of violence. After [Friday’s] tragic deaths, we hoped that the government would begin to exercise restraint but their actions today show a complete disregard for the rights and indeed the lives of their own citizens,” said Naly Pilorge, president of Licadho, in the statement.
The U.S. Embassy urged the government to reverse its decision on banning protests.
“We are deeply disappointed by the Phnom Penh Municipality’s decision to ban demonstrations by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. This action is a significant step backwards in Cambodia’s democratic development,” said Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy.
“We urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to reconsider its position and once again facilitate the exercise of the freedoms of peaceful expression and assembly, as it had done so commendably over the past several months,” Mr. McIntosh said in an email.
The Interior Ministry also claimed in its statement that the emptying of Freedom Park was peaceful.
“The operation was conducted peacefully without clashes and authorities dispersed the gathering and the illegal occupation of Freedom Park,” the statement says.
However, in the hours following the violent dispersal of protesters, journalists and human rights monitors posted dozens of photos online showing the plainclothes civilians armed with steel pipes and wooden clubs chasing and beating protesters, and security guards with batons beating monks.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, claimed that the violent actions on Friday and Saturday by state forces was necessary to restore order in the capital city.
“The restoration of rule of law was the decision of the government to bring happiness back to the people. We do any means to return normalcy back to the people,” Mr. Siphan said, blaming the CNRP for the violence and warning that they must now join parliament.
“The CNRP has a free choice to talk, but instead they incite the people,” he said. “The minority cannot wage war on the street. They [CNRP lawmakers-elect] have to join [the] National Assembly.”
Following a prayer vigil at CNRP headquarters in Meanchey district Sunday, held for the five demonstrators shot dead by the military police on Friday, Mr. Rainsy said the opposition party would temporarily refrain from public protests in Phnom Penh—its preferred tactic since July’s election—in favor of grassroots activism in the provinces.
“As long as popular support is growing—and it is growing—it doesn’t need to express itself every day or even every week in the form of massive demonstrations,” Mr. Rainsy said. “Now, Kem Sokha and I will go to provinces to strengthen the network in the villages, in the countryside.”
“Following the shootings, the CPP has shown its real face. The charm offensive is finished now,” Mr. Rainsy continued. “Donor countries will realize that something must be done. You cannot turn a blind eye. You cannot condone this facade of democracy—this perversion of democracy.”
Mr. Sokha said that until the CPP government ends its intimidation of opposition leaders and their supporters, through violent force and threats of legal action, the CNRP will not meet for further negotiations with the ruling party.
“[The CPP government] uses violence, hitting, threatening and using the court system to charge us. We cannot enter negotiations with them in this unequal atmosphere. We refuse to play along,” Mr. Sokha said, adding that the CNRP was not responsible for the behavior of the violent demonstrators around Veng Sreng Street.
“We are not worried about the complaint because we just provided humanitarian aid—food and water—to the workers. We did not assist them in using violence, so this is not a problem,” he said.
Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the military police, said that state security forces would continue to patrol Phnom Penh to prevent public demonstrations until the CNRP can “talk and understand” the government.
“The forces standing by are monitoring the situation at places such as Freedom Park. We also have mobile forces on bikes and trucks driving back and forth [throughout the city],” he said.
“We can’t tell when this is going to stop. Whether the situation returns to normality depends on the politicians. If they make it hot, it’s going to be hot. But if they make it cool, it’s going to be cool,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)
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