Grenades thrown into Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh compound on Monday apparently sealed the fate of the opposition protesters in Democracy Square.
After that incident happened, CPP hard-liners led by National Police Director-General Hok Lundy had the justification they needed to persuade moderates led by Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng that the protesters had to be dispersed, one military analyst said Tuesday.
“Hence, that’s what they’ve done,” the analyst said.
But it may not have been a clear hard-line victory, he noted: Moderates apparently persuaded the government to delay the use of force by more than 12 hours beyond the original deadline of midnight Monday.
In the end, “they did it during siesta time, when it was less likely” for violence to occur, said the military analyst. “It was well-planned and well-executed.”
Riot or so-called “rapid reaction” police armed with shock batons and assault rifles cleared the demonstrators from the area. But over the next hour, police had to frequently fire warning shots to keep at bay defiant protesters who threw rocks and closed in on police. Military police provided some backup.
When the exact orders to crack down came down, and from whom, wasn’t entirely clear.
The decisive action came just hours after Prum Sokha, director-general of administration of Interior, emerged from a meeting with the opposition, saying that “there will be no deadline for the sit-in protest.” He requested instead that the opposition reapply for permission for their demonstration, and restrict it to a protest over the election results.
Mu Sochua, Funcinpec spokeswoman, said she talked to Prum Sokha less than an hour before the crackdown. “At 12:30 pm, he told me things have changed a bit, but he wouldn’t elaborate.”
Later she added: “From the Funcinpec side, we are totally shocked by the violence and disregard of the negotiations. We have not been warned at all.” Prum Sokha wasn’t available for comment on Tuesday.
During a morning meeting between Funcinpec, Sam Rainsy officials and a UN representative, party leaders tentatively agreed to a compromise whereby the tent city would be disbanded, but protests and speeches would take place in the park for two to three hours a day, according to a source familiar with the talks.
But that deal and negotiations with the Interior Ministry broke down.
Said an Asian diplomat: “It seems that there was some miscommunication. The parties involved in the negotiations were not informed that the instructions already had been given to disperse the crowd.”
Indeed, one Asian diplomat said Sar Kheng had said in a Monday night meeting with diplomats the government would crack down on the protesters, but use “reasonable force.”
The military analyst offered that Prum Sokha’s comments might have been “disinformation” to maintain an element of surprise so protesters could be dispersed at lunch hour without relatively little trouble.
Agence France-Presse reported Prum Sokha’s pledge was reversed during a senior-level CPP meeting Tuesday.
But Khieu Kanharith, CPP spokesman, said the ultimatum had been given to protesters on Monday by the Ministry of Interior. He said the CPP meeting Tuesday involved other matters.
Khieu Kanharith said the 13-hour delay was merely the government’s effort to give the protesters more time to disperse on their own. He denied Prum Sokha had meant Tuesday morning that the government intended to allow the protest to continue.
“We said clearly [on Monday] that they must move out from the area. The warning was very clear…. Enough is enough. A lot of people were fed up with it.”
The two weeks of opposition protests had been marred by inflammatory anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and damage to the Cambodia-Vietnam Liberation Monument. Many believe the anti-Vietnamese rhetoric led to violence toward ethnic Vietnamese, killing at least four.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the government delayed in cracking down “because the government wanted to talk peacefully with the demonstrators’ leaders.”
He said the ultimate order was issued by “the government.” He said the aim was not to harm anyone, but some demonstrators kept throwing rocks at police.
“We used real rounds of ammunition, but our forces were just firing up” to scare away the protesters, Khieu Sopheak said.
Khieu Sopheak said the police have orders to restrain protesters until the opening of the new National Assembly on Sept 24.
Khieu Kanharith said future demonstrations will “go through the proper channels” in getting authorization, he said.
(Reporting by Jeff Smith, Kay Kimsong, Rachel Watson, Kimsan Chantara, Kay Johnson and Marc Levy)