One Dead as Police Fire on Protesters
At least one person was killed and several seriously injured as violence erupted Monday night between police and anti-government protesters.
The clashes began in front of a prominent Phnom Penh hotel more than nine hours after two grenades exploded mid-morning in the courtyard of the city residence of Hun Sen, the second premier and CPP vice president.
Municipal Court officials were preparing Monday afternoon to issue an arrest warrant for opposition leader Sam Rainsy. But top Interior Ministry official Prum Sokha said late Monday that Sam Rainsy would not be apprehended immediately.
No one was injured in the mid-morning blasts and police said Monday evening they had not arrested any of four men suspected of tossing up to three grenades and escaping on motorcycles.
Tension grew all day as state-run media broadcast Hun Sen’s warnings to demonstrators that they disperse by midnight or be removed from several protest locations by police units.
The day’s ill will soured Monday night when more than 1,000 protesters came to the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana to support Sam Rainsy, who had taken refuge in the hotel, apparently under the protection of the UN.
Police fired shots at the feet and over the heads of protesters on four occasions outside the hotel, beginning at 7:30 pm. Several demonstrators, including monks, were also beaten, witnesses said, and protestors pelted police with rocks—breaking one officer’s nose. Unconfirmed reports put the death toll as high as four.
King Norodom Sihanouk on Monday night sent a letter to Hun Sen, suggesting that the premier not use violence to “crack down on monks and lay people.”
“There is something wrong, because the use of the gun is not the Buddhist way,” the King wrote. “It only deepens the crisis between Khmer and Khmer.”
The King’s statement was read to protesters late Monday, who applauded it and later moved to the sit-in across from the National Assembly. Only a handful remained outside the hotel at 12:30 am today.
Prum Sokha, the director-general of administration for the Ministry of Interior, said late Monday that Sam Rainsy would not be arrested immediately and promised that police would delay the promised crack down on protesters across from the National Assembly.
“We guarantee not tonight,” Prum Sokha told reporters at the hotel, after meeting with Sam Rainsy and UN officials. “And tomorrow we will try again.”
Sam Rainsy arrived at the Cambodiana office of Lakhan Mehrotra, the UN secretary-general’s personal representative to Cambodia, at about noon.
Twenty Flying Tiger police, an elite Interior unit, stood guard at the end of the hotel’s long driveway, checking cars entering and leaving.
By 5:30 pm, about 1,000 protesters gathered in front of the hotel, chanting “Sam Rainsy” and “democracy.” National and municipal intervention police arrived in trucks to break up the protest at about 7 pm.
“This is an illegal demonstration,” a policeman told the crowd. “If demonstrators don’t…disperse, the authorities will disperse them.”
Thirty minutes later, police fired hundreds of rounds in the air and ground, killing a man believed to be about 30 to 35 years old. He was declared dead at Calmette Hospital from a bullet wound to the head.
A staff member at the Cambodiana was grazed on his upper lip by a bullet, while a monk was being treated at an infirmary tent near the Assembly after he was allegedly beaten by police.
At Ta Cheng Hospital on Mao Tse Tung Boulevard, doctors treated a 16-year-old boy who had been shot in the back during the 7:30 pm firing. Doctors also said they were treating a 36-year-old woman at 11 pm who claimed to have been shot at the demonstration, but who appeared to have been injured by shrapnel.
Earlier Monday, Hun Sen blamed the opposition leader and his fiercest critic Sam Rainsy for inciting what he said was an attempt against his life. “If those people did not talk about the killing of the prime minister or acts of discrimination, I think they would not be arrested,” Hun Sen told reporters in a press conference at his damaged Phnom Penh mansion.
Government lawyers were exploring charges Monday against Sam Rainsy on a number of counts ranging from violating the law on demonstrations to plotting against the second prime minister’s life, government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said.
“The government is just asking the lawyers to prepare the file the document to be sent to the court” for an arrest warrant, he said, adding that the files would be sent to Phnom Penh Municipal Court in the next day or two.
CPP-appointed National Police generals Hok Lundy and Mao Chandara said a number of people “behind the attack” could be arrested, but that for now, Sam Rainsy and four suspects in the grenade-throwing remain the primary targets of the investigations.
“We must find and arrest the offenders,” Hok Lundy said by telephone Monday evening. “When we find the offenders we will find the leader.”
Khieu Sopheak, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said “many” could be arrested if the Municipal Court prosecutor asked for multiple arrests.
Hok Lundy, the director-general of National Police, insisted the grenade attack grew directly from Sam Rainsy announcing over the loudspeakers in recent weeks for soldiers and police to “‘turn their guns on Hun Sen’….so right now it happened as he said.”
Khieu Kanharith, who is also a CPP member, said the government has “all the tapes and the dates” of such statements.
Sam Rainsy remained inside of the offices of Lakhan Mehrotra, the UN secretary-general’s representative to Cambodia, until late Monday. A party spokesman said Monday that Sam Rainsy has never made any such comments appealing for an attempt on the second prime minister’s life.
Hun Sen said Hok Lundy advised him that the incident was an attempt on his life. Hun Sen added, though, that it was well known that he is rarely at the residence—he lives at a compound in Takhmau—and that the election results may be the real target of the blasts.
“The real nature of the grenade attack this morning is aimed at destroying the result of the election,” said the second prime minister, who was in Siem Reap town at the time of the blasts and returned to Phnom Penh by helicopter soon after. “This type of assassination is much more serious than the assassination of me.”
According to investigators, traffic police and bodyguards at the house at the time of the attack, two men on a single red motorcycle pulled up in front of the house. The man on the back got off the motorcycle, pointed a pistol at two guards out front of the house and ordered them to lay down.
The suspect then threw two grenades into the compound, blowing out windows in front of and on the sides of the house and removing a chunk of concrete from the front stairs. Another undetonated grenade with the pin and handle still intact was found outside the compound less than an hour later.
The men then drove clockwise, or against the flow of traffic, around the Independence Monument and south down Norodom Boulevard.
However, Mao Chandara and Hok Lundy said Monday evening that police are searching for four men on two motorcycles suspected of throwing the grenades.
Hok Lundy and Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng were inside the compound observing the damage about 15 minutes after the blasts. Police blocked off surrounding streets.
While traffic police said they did not understand why the bodyguards did not shoot at the attackers, investigators said the two guards outside of the compound could not load bullets into their weapons before the men disappeared into traffic.
Employees in the office of the Documentation Center of Cambodia across the park from the residence reported that a thin man in a pale blue shirt—the description also given by police—ran across the nearby Independence Monument to where the driver of a red motorcycle was waiting for him.
Hun Sen said his father, who often stays at the mansion, had left the residence earlier in the day to pay respects to the dead at a pagoda.
One guard, armed with an AK-47, who said he was inside the compound at the time of the residence declined to answer how many people were with him. Hun Sen said he publicly announced last week an order to his bodyguards not to carry loaded rifles “so they would not use it when they cannot contain their anger.”
He then invited officials from the UN human rights office and Amnesty International to visit “this place of tragedy,” and said he pledged to open the residence up as a museum to tourists and journalists.
(Reporting Marc Levy, Touch Rotha, Mhari Saito, Saing Soenthrith, Kimsan Chantara, Khuy Sokhoeun, Debra Boyce, Jeff Smith and Pin Sisovann)