An otherwise peaceful International Workers’ Day took a violent turn Thursday morning as authorities attacked passersby and peaceful protesters near Freedom Park without provocation.
At least five people were seriously injured, and several others —including journalists—slightly injured by Daun Penh district public order guards who chased down people indiscriminately as they sought to disband small crowds of workers and supporters who had turned up to call for higher wages and better protection of their rights.
Ralliers who turned up at the blockaded park and several other points in the city were dismayed by the mass police presence aimed at quelling what is typically a peaceful and exuberant annual affair in which thousands of workers, teachers, students and activists take part.
“Why are they blocking the road when we hold it every year?” said garment worker Neth, 22, who attended Thursday’s rally to call for a raise to the minimum wage. “When we do anything, the authorities say it’s illegal. But when they do anything, it’s always right.”
Among those injured was Im Roly, 35, who said he took no part in the rally but was chased down by about 20 parapolice and pulled off his motorbike as he drove down Russian Boulevard. Mr. Roly sustained head and body injuries due to multiple blows from batons and kicks to the head and body.
“Our country appears to have no law since they can beat any person they want to without providing reasons,” he said by phone Thursday evening.
Most of the five badly injured were onlookers, according to Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho. Separately, one journalist was slapped in the face and another hit in the leg with a baton, according to the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia, which condemned the violence.
Senior municipal and police officials brushed off such incidents with the head of the district guards calling it a “small thing.”
“[Those attacked] might have been a danger to our security,” said Kim Vutha, chief of Daun Penh security. “It’s a small thing…because they violated the Ministry of Interior and City Hall ban.”
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he did not know anything about the attacks and could not comment on them, but defended the heavy police presence. “Since they have violated the City Hall ban, therefore we use the authorities to stop them from marching,” he said.
The day’s rallies—which authorities warned Wednesday would not be tolerated due to an ongoing ban on public assembly—kicked off in front of Canadia Industrial Park. On January 3, authorities there brutally suppressed a violent clash with gunfire, killing at least five and wounding dozens more. On Thursday, at around 8 a.m., leaders from the opposition party staged a memorial for those killed.
About 300 workers crowded in around the memorial, which lasted half an hour, while far larger numbers of garment workers lined up in front of several other locations along Veng Sreng Street.
Opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha climbed atop an SUV to address the crowd, telling those assembled there not to be discouraged by the killings.
“We don’t forget those who tried to demand higher salaries and died,” Mr. Rainsy shouted. “They live on as heroes for other workers.”
As the pair spoke to the crowds on Veng Sreng, hundreds of workers began gathering at the National Assembly, where unions instructed them to rally after authorities added extra security to Freedom Park on Wednesday, sealing it off with razor wire and heavy barricades.
But at the National Assembly, workers found the roads were also sealed off, making it impossible for them to deliver a petition calling for a higher minimum wage and better consultation between factories, workers and the government, among other demands.
As workers gathered in front of the nearby Australian Embassy, waving flags and chanting, police abruptly announced they would be pushing them back. “The embassy does not allow you to stand in front of the embassy, you have to pull back. We will push you back away from the embassy and if you oppose, we will take action,” officers began yelling through a loudspeaker at about 8:30 a.m.
On cue, the baton-wielding district security guards flung the barricades aside and charged the crowd. The crowd responded, retreating along the street as the security guards advanced their line.
One demonstrator, wearing a Free the 23 headband, said: “Why did the Australian Embassy ask them to push us away? Does Australia support workers or fighting?”
Phillip Molloy, an embassy representative, who was seen talking to a senior police officer and attempting to move on protesters, claimed district police were using the Australian Embassy as cover to disperse the demonstration.
“The embassy never told anyone to move on,” Mr. Molloy said. “What do you want me to do? Tell police to stop?”
The ralliers regathered and marched toward Norodom Boulevard, where they hoped to deliver the petition to the offices of the CPP and CNRP.
Another standoff occurred when eight trucks carrying about 150 riot police pulled up at the intersection of Sothearos and Norodom boulevards, blocking the group of about 500 from moving forward.
After about 30 minutes, the police stepped aside and allowed the crowd to march to CPP headquarters, where Keo Lyhul, CPP deputy cabinet chief, accepted the petition.
At the CNRP headquarters, where the group ended their morning, an exasperated unionist bemoaned the heavy police presence and urged an end to the political deadlock.
“We have been exploited by our employers and our rights shut down by the government. If either of you [Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha] cannot find a solution for us, in the next mandate neither of you will ever get votes from us,” said Morm Rithy, president of the Cambodian Tourism and Service Workers Federation.
“We voted for you to solve the people’s problems and not to make us your political tool,” he added.
“When you are high ranking, you sit in your office and with air conditioning and eat beef while workers eat shells.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom, Alex Willemyns and Matt Blomberg)