Thousands of protesters confronted bulked-up police forces Thursday as sporadic violence continued in the capital, nearly erupting into chaos in the late afternoon.
A member of an elite police group in the morning shot and reportedly paralyzed an 18-year-old boy in front of the US Embassy. And, well after dark, police were working to disperse rowdy crowds along Sihanouk Boulevard and in front of the Faculty of Medicine on Monivong Boulevard.
The shooting was the fourth of a demonstrator in front of the embassy in three days. US Embassy officials had requested that police not use violent tactics against demonstrators near the embassy.
Top UN human rights officials met five demonstrators’ representatives in the early afternoon, contacted authorities and claimed to have secured a pledge that would protect protesters from police violence.
One Western diplomat observing Thursday’s demonstrations said if this week’s shootings hadn’t happened, a political compromise related to the July 26 election between the CPP and the opposition could have been reached already. However, a military analyst said Thursday he believes continued demonstrations will force a compromise as both sides tire of the ordeal.
The day began as a group of demonstrators—younger and smaller in numbers than previous days—assembled early on Wat Langka Street to the west of the US Embassy.
At 8:30 am, about 20 riot police and members of the Flying Tigers, an elite motorcycle police unit, arrived at the intersection of streets 63 and 240. Demonstrators retreated
to US Embassy blockades a block away and threw rocks and taunted police, who took positions against buildings.
Two policemen then walked out in the street. Kneeling, a Flying Tiger fired about 10 AK-47 rounds into scattering demonstrators, hitting 18-year-old Dour Kunaroth in the throat.
Demonstrators hurriedly carried the boy’s limp body to embassy blockades one block north on Wat Langka street, where security officers refused them entry to the embassy.
People then picked the heavily bleeding and silent boy up off the ground and loaded him into a UN truck to be transported to Preah Kossamak Hospital on the capital’s western outskirts. A small pool of thick blood and a pair of blue flip-flops were left where the boy fell. UN staff members, citing two sources, said late Thursday that the boy has been paralyzed.
The Western diplomat expressed sorrow at the shootings and said it was not surprising that the police had reacted in a violent way. “It’s the only language they know,” he said.
Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, insisted late Thursday that police had not been directly targeting demonstrators. “If they are shooting straight, they would be dying,” he said of reports that the Flying Tiger shot straight into the crowd. “The result today is that no people are dying.”
About 45 minutes after the shooting of the 18-year-old, a group of 80 riot police, military police and paracommandos walked through the streets west of the embassy, clearing the protesters for several blocks without incident.
Long Bora, 23, watching a reassembled march two hours after the shooting, said demonstrators were chanting slogans about “killing the Vietnamese.”
“I am a student,” he said. “I do not go to kill the Vietnamese….I don’t join in.”
Demonstrators said they were marching to the UN human rights office because the UN could protect them from police violence. “We also want to come to the UN about the shooting of the boy this morning,” said Chao Vimean, 24, of the mixed crowd of students and workers.
After nearly two hours and the meeting between demonstrators and rights officials, UN officials escorted the march back to Sihanouk Boulevard.
Rosemary McCreery, standing amid marchers on Street 63, said the office had contacted police and a senior adviser to Second Prime Minister Hun Sen to secure promises that police violence against the demonstrators would end. “They said they will do their best,” she said.
The office also had advice for the students. “We pointed out that if they use violence, it will increase the violence used against them,” McCreery said of the rock-throwing and slingshots. Racist taunts also need to end, she said.
Khieu Kanharith, a government spokesman, confirmed Thursday that police had orders not to use violence or intervene in demonstrations. “The police have a duty to maintain order, but with stones thrown and shouting ‘Vietnam puppet’ they get nervous too,” he said by telephone Thursday.
The march reconvened at the US Embassy, moved to Phsar Thmei and Olympic Stadium, quickly gathering participants and onlookers into the thousands and effecting a parade atmosphere.
The march snarled traffic all over central Phnom Penh for an hour before moving down Sihanouk Boulevard and to the Royal Palace. Numbers reached between 5,000 and 10,000 onlookers and participants.
The jubilant and cheering crowd, watched by military policemen guarding the demolished Democracy Square, remained in the area, chanting and shouting. A crippled man wearing fatigues circulated among people, aping the threatening police gestures and blowing a whistle to the laughter of the crowd.
The people fled in droves to the north when after 4 pm six trucks of riot police, four trucks of military police and two fire trucks pulled up. Thousands of people crowded alleyways, stumbling over motorcycles and huddling against the palace walls.
The military analyst said the police thought the crowds were attempting to retake Democracy Square, a sit-in protest across the street from the National Assembly that was emptied by police earlier this week.
Khieu Sopheak said he does not consider using fire trucks and electric batons as violence or intervening in demonstrations. “If the Ministry of Interior allows this [to go on], hundreds and hundreds of people will pour into the city and hobble the stability of the nation,” he said.
The trucks sped down Sisowath Quay and west to the railway station, where six monks being chased by police had just forced their way into a UN vehicle, UN staff said. “If we pulled them out they would be beaten to pork chop steak,” said a UN staff member.
Throngs of onlookers became rowdy, hurling rocks at the beleaguered policemen, who were tripping to get out of the trucks and give chase.
People watched from high-rise balconies and rooftops; hundreds of motorbike-taxi drivers followed the trucks, screaming, “Cheyo!” The windshield on the back of a UN truck was smashed, apparently by a police baton, UN staff said. And some windshields on military trucks bore a number of cracks.
Military police administered several whacks with electric baton to two rock-throwers in a brief melee in the lawn in front of the central train station.
Later, at 7 pm, police scattered cheering and chanting demonstrators perched on the steps of Independence Monument and adjacent lawns by driving in two truckloads around the traffic circle and firing several shots into the air, witnesses said.
Well after dark, police units were still attempting to disperse throngs of people in various parts of town.
In front of the Faculty of Medicine, police used electric batons on crowds after unconfirmed rumors spread that authorities had attacked monks there. And Prampi Makara district police secured the intersection at Monivong and Sihanouk boulevards for hours and fired dozens of rounds into the air.
Khieu Sopheak said police would be more effective today in dispersing demonstrators. “Some of them will be invited down to the police station to make statements,” he said.
An Asian diplomat called the ongoing street confrontations and sporadic violence “a precarious situation.” He added, “This could lead to bigger clashes.”
(Additional reporting by Karen Coates, Rachel Watson, Kimsan Chantara, Kay Johnson, Jeff Smith, and Chris Decherd)