A day of demonstrations led by the opposition CNRP ended Sunday with violent clashes erupting between military police, riot police and protesters in the vicinity of Phnom Penh’s Monivong Bridge, resulting in one shot dead and several others injured.
Late Sunday night, the corpse of Mao Chan, 29, a father of four, remained in the middle of the road where he was shot and killed.
Though killed several hours earlier, dozens of people still surrounded the body late last night to prevent military police from removing the corpse, screaming at the authorities and ambulance crews to move back from the site.
“Don’t take the body. You killed him. We don’t need your help,” shouted one man protecting the corpse from being removed by police.
Thousands of commuters were the audience to running battles between stone-throwing youths and military police and riot police armed with guns, rubber bullets, tear gas and smoke grenades. At one point, hundreds of riot police faced off with dozens of stone throwers on Monivong Bridge, Monivong Boulevard and National Road 2, where barricades had been set up.
A video that appeared on YouTube late last night shows at least three young men with bullet wounds and several others with injuries at a local medical clinic.
“The police were angry because they [the protesters] were calling them Vietnamese police… and police started to fire tear gas and smoke bombs. People then threw stones back at them,” said Kong Rareach, 25, one of the police shooting victims who was receiving treatment at Calmette Hospital late last night.
Mr. Rareach, who took part in the demonstrations near Monivong Bridge last night, said he was not one of the young men throwing stones, but received a bullet in his elbow. “I was also angry at the police, but I did nothing wrong,” he said.
Thomas Cristofoletti, a freelance photographer who was present at the scene, said a group of about 25 young protesters began throwing stones at security forces at roughly 9:30 p.m., triggering a huge backlash from military police who fired live rounds and tear gas.
Mr. Cristofoletti said he was standing just meters away from the young man who was struck by a bullet in the head.
CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the violence was a huge setback for Cambodia and the ongoing negotiations between the two parties.
“We totally regret this. It’s a very, very bad negative image for the whole of Cambodia. We were really thinking it would be peaceful with tomorrow’s negotiations,” she said, referring to talks scheduled for today between the CNRP and ruling CPP over the contested July 28 poll.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak claimed that the violence had broken out on Monivong Bridge because some of the protesters had been seen with rifles.
“I understand some protesters have rifles. The CNRP don’t recognize those people belong to them,” he said.
Military police spokesman Brigadier General Kheng Tito said that the clashes near Monivong Bridge were caused by a band of drug-using youths.
“Young people using drugs caused the problem. Police shot canisters of tear gas to disperse them,” Brig. Gen. Tito said, adding that he did not know if any injuries were sustained by protesters or military police during the clashes.
Earlier in the day, at about 4:30 p.m., after demonstrators began attempting to move barbed-wire barricades set up on Sisowath Quay, police fired water cannons and tear gas at demonstrators, who lobbed stones and coconuts in return. CNRP president Sam Rainsy arrived on the scene about an hour later and called on demonstrators to return to Freedom Park, effectively quelling the tension.
Shortly before noon, demonstrators had removed a number of razor-wire barricades set up at the intersection of Sothearos Boulevard and Sisowath Quay after Mr. Rainsy walked through a gap in a blockade on his way to a Buddhist shrine along the riverside, where hundreds of supporters joined him and CNRP vice president Kem Sokha.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann denied that CNRP supporters were among those who provoked the afternoon clashes along the riverside.
“We do not want to be responsible for those people [who clashed with police],” said Mr. Sovann, adding that the leaders of the CNRP demonstration repeatedly told their supporters to remain inside Freedom Park throughout the day.
“Those people…are part of other groups who intend to make the CNRP look bad. Those groups must be responsible for themselves. The police do their duty and we do our duty. In Freedom Park we respect the rules,” he said.
Aside from the violence, the CNRP concluded the party’s first day of its planned three-day demonstrations at Freedom Park shortly after 6 p.m., though hundreds of supporters remained camped in the park last night despite orders by the Interior Ministry not to do so.
The CNRP also flouted a number of other directives from the government, which were listed in letter from the Interior Ministry to City Hall on Thursday and included orders that the opposition refrain from marching and call off entirely their promised “camp-in.”
After negotiations took place between party officials at City Hall Sunday afternoon, Lt. Gen. Sopheak said many of those who had traveled to Phnom Penh from the provinces had been allowed to remain under a number of large marquis that had been set up around the edges of the park.
“Ninety percent [of the CNRP demonstrators] went home, only 10 percent will stay,” Lt. Gen. Sopheak said, declining to answer further questions.
Military Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Tito said that demonstrators would be allowed back to Freedom Park tomorrow, but he said that security forces would maintain a strong presence throughout the city.
“They [CNRP supporters] can come to demonstrate or not, it is up to them. [W]e will still have police stationed at the same locations to protect public order and security,” he said.
As dusk fell on Freedom Park, Mr. Rainsy promised continued demonstrations today, and said that although CNRP leaders will meet with their CPP counterparts for negotiations this morning, they will not discuss forming a government until their demand for an impartial investigation into election irregularities is met.
“I would like to appeal to all of you who are present today to collect more relatives to join demonstrations tomorrow to push the ruling party to find justice for all of us,” he said as a light rain began to fall on the thousands of demonstrators still packed into the park.
“We are going to attend a meeting for negotiations tomorrow, and we will tell all of you about the results of what is talked about at the meeting. But even though we are going to attend the meeting, we will not join together to work with the CPP,” Mr. Rainsy added.
Sunday’s demonstrations began at around 7 a.m., with more than 1,000 supporters taking part in separate marches through the city led by Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha, which left from CNRP offices in Tuol Kok and Meanchey districts and merged together before moving on to Freedom Park.
With little fanfare, Mr. Rainsy walked out of opposition headquarters in Meanchey district and began walking at a brisk pace toward the center of the city, trailed by hundreds of CNRP faithful.
With barbed-wire barricades and hundreds of police in riot gear blocking Norodom Boulevard, the demonstrators were redirected to Monivong Boulevard. Throughout the 90-minute march, Mr. Rainsy waved at onlookers as his followers shouted for a CNRP election victory and the ouster of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
While Mr. Rainsy was leading his marchers up Monivong Boulevard, Mr. Sokha was setting off with several thousand more supporters from party offices in Tuol Kok district.
Police along that route were also out in force, standing guard along Russian Boulevard with most side roads blocked off with metal barricades and razor wire.
The only early brush with the police came when Mr. Sokha stopped to greet a group of police in full riot gear stationed on the opposite side of one of the barbed barricades.
In what Mr. Sovann said was a coincidence, the two marches arrived at almost exactly the same time at the corner of Monivong and Kampuchea Krom boulevards, allowing Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha to strike what has become their trademark pose—hands clasped and raised above their heads—as they led supporters to Freedom Park.
Upon their arrival, the opposition leaders were cheered by more than 30,000 supporters who gathered in the park, spilled onto surrounding streets and surrounded much of nearby Wat Phnom.
Taking the microphone first, Mr. Sokha laid out the purpose of the demonstrations, which were the largest the country has seen since Mr. Rainsy returned from self-imposed exile just days before the July 28 election.
“We come here today to inform all of you that the dictators in the ruling party have stolen the vote. Thus we must reunite to demand justice,” he said. “If they steal the trees, the trees can grow back. But if they try to steal our nation, we cannot allow that to happen.”
Mr. Rainsy said that the demonstrations would not cease until the CPP met the opposition’s demands.
“If there is no solution today or tomorrow, we will hold demonstrations forever or until we find a suitable resolution,” he said.
(Reporting by Phann Ana, Aun Pheap, Hul Reaksmey, Zsombor Peter, Colin Meyn, Kate Bartlett, Mech Dara and Kevin Doyle)