Military police chased down and beat several protesters bloody who had gathered in central Phnom Penh on Monday for a peaceful rally to demand that the government grant a radio relay station and TV license to independent broadcaster—and frequent government critic—Mam Sonando.
The military police threw smoke and stun grenades into the street and used batons to shock and hit protesters who were putting up no resistance outside the Ministry of Information on Monivong Boulevard.
Human rights groups said at least 10 people were injured and condemned the military police response.
Monday’s violence was only the latest peaceful protest in Phnom Penh to be brutally broken up by security forces since the government earlier this month suspended articles in the Constitution on freedom of assembly and imposed a ban on all gatherings.
Despite the ban, Mr. Sonando called the rally Monday to demand that the Information Ministry reverse its refusal to grant him a TV license and a relay station so that his radio broadcasts can reach further into the provinces.
Mr. Sonando’s popular Beehive Radio is one of the few stations on the country’s airwaves to offer news and commentary critical
of the government and has lately thrown its support behind the political opposition.
Heeding his call to march to the Information Ministry, hundreds of supporters lined Norodom Boulevard at Naga Bridge for Mr. Sonando’s arrival, from where he led a boisterous march to the nearby offices of the Information Ministry, sidestepping a light security presence that made a futile attempt to block the crowd’s way at nearby Wat Phnom.
Once in front of the ministry’s closed gates, the crowd took over Monivong Boulevard to press their demands for fairer access to the nation’s airwaves, blocking off traffic north and south.
It was then that the hundreds of military police made their move.
After a few dozen of them first lined up across the street, hundreds more streamed out of the nearby City Hall compound at once and filled the road several rows deep. A few minutes later, they started to advance on the protesters, cornering and then kicking and striking the few who had not fled in fear.
The military police then threw several smoke and stun grenades into the street before their front rows broke into a sprint to chase down and beat whoever was left on or along the road, including women and the elderly—none of them seen putting up any form of resistance in the face of the onslaught.
Half an hour after they had emerged, the road cleared of protesters and smoke alike, the military police filed back into City Hall and traffic returned to normal.
According to local rights group Licadho, some of the protesters regrouped outside the nearby U.S. Embassy, where they were forced away by riot police and then dispersed for the last time.
Licadho said the 10 injured included two men who, caught with slingshots, were attacked by some of the protesters who suspected them of having been planted in the crowd by the government to provoke retaliation.
Rights group Adhoc said nine motorbikes and four tuk-tuks were also confiscated by police.
Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military Police, claimed that his officers had no choice but to use force because the protesters had violated the government’s ban on demonstrations, and had ignored orders to clear the road.
“They violated the City Hall ban, and they blocked the road and impacted public order. We asked them to break up but they didn’t, so our forces took action to break them up,” he said.
Mr. Sonando, who was pulled away from the melee by supporters just steps ahead of the military police, condemned the assault.
“We were shocked, because the people just expressed their views demanding a TV license and a relay station and they sat still, but the military police and riot police fired the smoke grenades and beat the people,” he said.
Mr. Sonando warned of only more civil unrest if the police continued their heavy-handed ways.
“They do not solve the problem, they only crack down,” he said. “It will make the people suffer and take revenge on the authorities…then it will explode like a volcano.”
Sok Ny, a motorcycle taxi driver who joined the protest, said district security guards hit him with batons on the back and again on the head after pulling off his helmet. He required four stitches to the back of the head at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital.
“It was a very brutal crackdown because the demonstrators were empty-handed, so how could they fight back?”
Mr. Ny said it was as much an attack on free speech.
“The people were just demonstrating to express their views. Now we can’t express our views any more. They have shut down our rights,” he said.
Speaking afterward from where the morning’s march set off near Naga Bridge, opposition lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua said such use of police force would harm Prime Minister Hun Sen politically.
“Mr. Hun Sen has to understand that his days are actually [numbered], really limited. If he continues like this, with the blood of the Cambodian people on Cambodian soil…each drop of blood is a day for him to step down,” she said.
“This is a very, very critical moment for Mr. Hun Sen to understand that the people are talking to him. Will he talk with the people or talk at the people?”
The CNRP, which accuses Mr. Hun Sen and his long-ruling CPP of engineering irregularities to win last year’s national elections, is calling on the prime minister to step down or call fresh elections. The CPP has emphatically said no to both.
Undeterred by the violent end to Monday’s rally and the Information Ministry’s repeated rejections, Mr. Sonando said he would keep pressing for a relay station and TV license and would be sending the ministry another official request after Chinese New Year.
“If they give us the TV license and the relay station for the radio, the problem will end,” he said. Until then, he added, “we will continue to [demonstrate].”