A large deployment of police forcibly broke up a march led by SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua and her supporters through the capital Tuesday, leaving several party activists injured and rights groups crying foul over the police’s tactics.
The march began when about 40 Sam Rainsy Party members and supporters gathered outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after Ms Sochua was found guilty of defaming Prime Minister Hun Sen and ordered to pay 16.5 million riel in fines and compensation. There, Ms Sochua tried to speak with the media outside the courtroom, only to have officers shove journalists away from her and scatter the throng of people.
Shouting “We need justice” and singing songs about Cambodians uniting, the supporters, along with SRP President Sam Rainsy and other opposition lawmakers, then moved from the court to nearby Phsar Olympic, where they were blocked by police.
“At first they didn’t allow us to march, so we pushed forward to march. They beat me,” said SRP lawmaker Chan Cheng, adding he was struck a second time in the stomach near Wat Lanka.
Barred from the market, the crowd circled it and then walked down Sihanouk Boulevard toward the party headquarters on Sothearos Boulevard with police attempting several times to disrupt their advance along the way. At some points, officers with the anti-riot police force walked into the protest rally and grabbed participants, pulling them to the side. Witnesses also stated officers directed traffic through intersections just as marchers began crossing them.
“The police were essentially trying to use the traffic as a weapon, in order to get a marcher run over,” Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said in a statement. “Repeatedly, the police stopped the traffic as the marchers were approaching an intersection and then, just as they entered the intersection, waved the traffic forward. It was only by luck that no-one was injured.”
In the statement, the organization also decried “the intimidation and violence committed by police against Ms Sochua and SRP supporters, as well as journalists and other independent observers, following the announcement of the verdict.”
Government spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith said the police were not the ones to blame.
The SRP activists “marched without permission, they abused uniformed authorities,” he said by telephone. “They should be handcuffed or detained.”
When the protest reached Wat Lanka near the Independence Monument, police sealed off the boulevard in both directions and began splitting up the group. Police repeatedly placed one party activist, 42-year-old Ho Seirin, in a chokehold as he tried to protect Ms Sochua. He eventually fainted to the ground.
“I almost died,” Mr Seirin said.
Officers also grappled with the bodyguard of SRP lawmaker Yont Tharo. The man, identified only by his first name of Chanda, was kneed and punched until he could no longer walk. Fellow marchers helped him up and whisked him away from the scene in Mr Tharo’s car.
“Police beat him because they accused him of beating them,” Mr Tharo said. “He dared not beat the police, he only protected me.”
Police also detained two men for reportedly disrupting public order and fighting with officers. The men-Ly Me, 33, and Seng Hokchhe, 45-were released less than two hours later without charge.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the strong show of force was the government’s way of flexing its muscles and re-asserting its control. He lamented that authorities stopped “what should have been a short march,” as well as the court’s ruling.
“It will create a chilling effect,” he said. The fine “would make anyone afraid.”
Phnom Penh municipal police chief Touch Naruth defended the actions of his officers and said law enforcement officials were merely preserving public order and protecting themselves from unruly individuals.
“Police have human rights, too,” he said in an interview following the rally’s break up. “So we have to respect the rights of each other. I will not do anything to them but I want them to understand about the law.”
Mr Naruth said the rally was eventually halted because it approached Independence Monument, a site that is off-limits to protesters.
Speaking at a news conference after the morning march, Ms Sochua declined to detail the day’s events, saying the actions of the authorities spoke louder than any of her words.
“I don’t need to explain it,” she said, “the people will see.”