Rights workers are questioning whether Cambodia’s police forces have the discipline and training to deal with civil demonstrations, after five protesters were gunned down with AK-47s by police and military police in Poipet on Monday morning.
Police in Phnom Penh routinely use what appears to be excessive force to break up mainly peaceful protests, beating demonstrators with batons, wrestling them to the ground and occasionally hitting them in the head with rifle butts.
In general, police appear to be unprepared to deal with protesters without using violence, Thun Saray, Adhoc director said Tuesday.
“Before they knew how to deal with people who organized demonstrations peacefully,” Thun Saray said, adding that police should come to protests with rubber batons, not AK-47s.
Protests should not be handled “like a battlefield,” he said.
Monday’s killings in Poipet violated the law and international covenants on human rights to which Cambodia is a signatory, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said in a statement.
Calling for a thorough investigation of the killings, the UN human rights office said that before carrying out the forced eviction, local authorities should have ensured that all feasible alternatives had been explored.
The local authorities should not have conducted forced evictions and demolished houses as a punitive measure, the UN said.
International response to the killings was muted Tuesday. The German Embassy in Phnom Penh said the incident was an internal matter for the Cambodian government. The US and Australian embassies declined comment.
Such killings would be unlikely to happen in the capital, but are more likely to happen in the remote northwest, “away from the glare of the international community,” one foreign political observer said Tuesday on condition of anonymity.
“The police must have got carried away,” the observer added.
General Sok Phal, deputy director general of the National Police, said Phnom Penh police received anti-riot training following the Jan 2003 anti-Thai riots.
But he was uncertain what training provincial police receive to deal with civilian protesters. “Now we don’t have any training course,” on dealing with protesters, he said.
During the anti-Thai riots, hundreds of club-wielding teenagers ransacked the Thai Embassy—opposite the Interior Ministry—and destroyed about a dozen Thai businesses, causing $56 million in damage. Police defended their decision not to use force to end the anti-Thai rampage, saying it would have added fuel to an already in-flamed situation.
Municipal Police Commissioner Heng Pov said Tuesday he was too busy to discuss police training.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment.
One senior Intervention Police official, the force charged with quelling public protests, claimed on Tuesday that only senior police officials receive proper training on the law and how to avoid violence. “But normally they never use [their training],” claimed the police official on condition of anonymity. Higher-ranking officials order the attack and the lower- ranking police officials follow orders, he said.
“They are always ready to attack,” he added.