Khmer Krom Buddhist monks clashed with scores of police in Phnom Penh on Monday during a confrontation in which at least one monk was reportedly struck unconscious.
The violence erupted shortly after 7 am as about 50 monks from the Samaki Raingsey pagoda in Meanchey district attempted to deliver a protest letter to the Vietnamese Embassy calling for the release of monks jailed in Vietnam.
In two brief battles that broke out during a tense standoff of over two hours, monks threw water bottles at riot police armed with electric batons and truncheons who attempted to force the monks away from the embassy in Chamkar Mon district.
Human rights groups accused police of violently suppressing a peaceful demonstration, chasing down monks as they scattered, and striking two monks in the head with electric batons, leaving one unconscious.
Police said following the violence that they had tried to show restraint and denied striking monks with electric batons. Authorities also said that they had been provoked into using force.
Calls to the Vietnamese Embassy were referred to a spokesman who said he was too busy to comment.
“We just want the Vietnamese government to be aware that we all demand the release of former chief monk Tim Sakhorn and five other monks who are in jail since earlier this year,” said Yoeun Sin, president of the Kampuchea Krom Buddhist Monks Association.
“Beating Khmer Krom monks is too cruel,” he said, adding that as many as three monks had been beaten unconscious
Last month, a court in Vietnam’s An Giang province sentenced Khmer Krom Buddhist monk Tim Sakhorn to a year in jail for so-called “political” crimes.
Rights groups have denounced Tim Sakhorn’s secret deportation from Takeo province to Vietnam in June as illegal.
The protest letter, which the monks failed to deliver on Monday, also called for the return of lands the monks claim Vietnam annexed in 1978 and to respect indigenous peoples’ rights.
Chan Soveth, chief monitor of the rights group Adhoc, told reporters outside the embassy that Vietnamese officials had requested that a group of only five monks enter the embassy compound to deliver the letter.
“But they didn’t agree. The monks wanted someone to come out and take it,” Chan Soveth said.
“I saw the police appeared to be patient, but the riot police really didn’t find a better solution,” he added.
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth said he suspected some among the monks may have been impostors seeking to incite violence.
“Police never start the violence first. The presence of the riot police was to keep order, security and safety for the monks,” he said. “Our riot police were patient enough.”
In a joint statement Monday, the Community Legal Education Center, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Licadho and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee denounced what they called “the excessive use of violence” by authorities.
“Two monks were seriously injured after being shocked by electric batons on the backs of their heads, causing one to temporarily lose consciousness,” the groups said in the statement, adding that four others were also injured.
“We appeal to the authorities to refrain from any further use of violence against monks and to ensure that the monks who gathered today will not face any recriminations from religious or state authorities.”
One of the monks who protested outside the embassy, Thach Mony, 20, said violence could have been avoided if only the authorities had accepted the protest letter.
“If one representative of the embassy had come out to take our statement, it would have ended,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Gillison.)