Military police opened fire on Monday in Poipet City during a demonstration by handcart-pullers demanding that customs officials stop charging them arbitrary fees to transport goods back and forth across the Cambodian-Thai border.
About 100 protesting handcart-pullers set up a roadblock on National Road 5, which leads to the Poipet International Checkpoint, resulting in violent clashes with about 30 police and military police.
“They sent military police to crack down on our workers by beating us to reopen the roadblock,” said Hean Tran, a representative of the cart-pullers. “One of our workers was injured, knocked unconscious and sent to the hospital.”
During the clash, which saw military police punch, kick and knee protesters, handcart-puller Mao Sun, 32, was knocked unconscious as officers attempted to handcuff and arrest him, Mr. Tran said.
He said fellow protesters wrestled Mr. Sun away from military police and ensured that he was sent to the Poipet City referral hospital.
As erroneous rumors spread that Mr. Sun had died, protesters surrounded the nearby customs office, launching rocks over its gate and at cars parked outside, Mr. Tran said. It was then that military police opened fire, shooting about 20 bullets over the heads of protesters, he added.
“Military police confiscated four of our carts and stopped the rally, but tomorrow our workers will rally again,” he said.
Mr. Tran said Monday’s demonstration was the third in the past six months by the cart-pullers, who are hired to transport goods and want customs officials to stop charging them exorbitant fees to cross the border.
After a protest in December, Poipet City governor Ngor Mengchruon, who could not be reached Monday, said he would instruct customs officials to stop demanding informal fees.
“We asked the border customs officers to stop taking the money from the cart-pullers, who earn money for their families,” Mr. Mengchruon said at the time.
But a second rally followed in January, with the handcart-pullers claiming that Mr. Mengchruon had failed to keep his promise.
In a letter sent to Banteay Meanchey provincial governor Kousoum Saroeuth on Monday, Mr. Mengchruon wrote that military police stationed at the customs office fired four bullets “to frighten” protesters after they “attacked and stormed” the customs office, destroying its front gate, seven cars and injuring one guard.
“To prevent this situation from getting worse and to protect state property…the military police stationed at the customs office opened fire to frighten them, firing their pistols four times,” he wrote.
Mr. Mengchruon said in his letter that the demonstration was led by Chao Veasna, a CNRP commune official, and Din Puthy, provincial head of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association, an informal labor union.
Mr. Saroeuth declined to comment on Mr. Mengchruon’s report Monday and said that a “working group” would meet today to address the cart-pullers’ demands.
Chhuon Hay, customs chief at the Poipet International Checkpoint, could not be reached.
Poipet City military police commander Chea Da said the intervention of his forces was necessary to clear away a roadblock that was impeding traffic, adding that bullets had to be fired to maintain order.
“We opened gunfire to manage the situation,” he said, noting that the bullets were fired into the sky.
Speaking by telephone from his hospital bed, Mr. Sun, the injured worker who was feared dead, said: “Military police kicked me, beat me and kneed me until I lost consciousness.”
Ran Sreymom, his wife, said that she wanted to rush over and help her husband, but could not abandon her two crying children.
“I was worried military police would step on them,” she said. “Now we lost our cart; they probably destroyed it.”