Swinging wooden batons and rubber truncheons, scores of riot police waded into a noisy but peaceful protest Wednesday outside the National Assembly.
At least 11 were injured, out of more than 300 demonstrators who had come to protest efforts to remove the parliamentary immunity of opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy.
Truckloads of well-equipped intervention police, many brandishing AK-47 rifles, were deployed early Wednesday morning along roads leading from Sam Rainsy Party headquarters to the Assembly.
Led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, the demonstrators were successful in reaching the Assembly building after pushing past two separate lines of police officers offering only cursory resistance on Sothearos Boulevard.
However, when Sam Rainsy and representatives of the demonstrators were invited to a discussion inside the Assembly building by its president, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, police charged the waiting crowd. Commanding officers shouted orders through megaphones to “storm” the protesters and “beat them back” to Sam Rainsy Party headquarters.
One of the imploring commanders clobbered several protesters with his truncheon as an example to his underlings of how to deal with the crowd. Banners and placards were snatched as the protesters scattered in disarray before the advancing lines of riot police.
Several demonstrators said later that at least 11 people were injured.
The scuttled demonstration was the first political gathering of its kind since the Jan 29 rioting, when police and military police were unable to stop crowds of students from inflicting some $50 million in damage to Thai interests in Phnom Penh.
“Why do the police do like this? Is this what we call a democratic country?” said Yim Yon, 49, who traveled from Kompong Chhnang province to take part in the protests
Bleeding from a blow to his head, Ven Ra, 35, from Chol Kiri district in Kompong Chhnang said police had targeted him because he was holding a placard.
Chamkar Mon district Police Chief Lork Lon said he was following orders from his superiors.
“[The protesters] have a boss. I also have a boss,” Lork Lon said.
The majority of the protesters traveled from Kompong Chhnang in a show of support for Cheam Channy. The Assembly’s Permanent Committee were meeting to discuss the lifting of Cheam Channy’s parliamentary immunity following a request by Kompong Chhnang court officials who accuse him of assisting the escape of a court suspect.
Suspect Moeun Mel escaped from a Kompong Chhnang courthouse in December while being questioned over his alleged defamation of public works officials he accused of improperly selling state land, court officials said.
“This is a fine example of a police state,” said Sam Rainsy.
“The authority [had] obviously decided [at] the outset to crack down on the demonstrators,” he said in a statement.
The opposition claimed that the committee was “colluding” to remove Cheam Channy’s protective status as a lawmaker; however, Prince Ranariddh said Wednesday he would prevent the committee from such action.
“I don’t want to see, under my mandate, any parliamentarian being stripped of his immunity,” the prince told reporters after the meeting.
“The Permanent Committee meeting decided to send the issue to the inspection committee [for defense and the interior] to do further examination and investigation of the case,” the prince said.
“This is my formula, that I suggested, to facilitate the problem and help Mr Cheam Channy,” the prince added.
Prince Ranariddh also expressed regret at the police action taken against the protest outside.
“I have a clear position to carry out the Constitution, which guarantees the physical and political safety of all parliamentarians. Regardless of any party, I have to protect all [members of parliament],” the prince said.
Sam Rainsy later rejected the prince’s statement saying the Assembly president could not be trusted.
Human rights and student groups issued statements deploring the repressive police action.
The Cambodian Watchdog Council, a pro-opposition coalition of groups representing students, teachers and farmers, condemned the use of violence, saying the right to peaceful protest was enshrined in the Constitution.
The excessive use of force by the police was “another disturbing example of the suppression of fundamental freedoms prior to the July 27 national elections” the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in a statement.
(Additional reporting by Kevin Doyle)