Police cracked down on scores of people gathered in a peaceful demonstration in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district to protest high gasoline prices on Sunday.
District police and officers from the elite Flying Tiger police descended on the crowd, beating protesters with batons and walkie talkies, protesters said. They said police also hauled six people into the district police station, where they were detained for about four hours.
“Both my hands were swollen. Police this time were very cruel, [more so] than before,” said protester Oeun Srey Mom, who was among the two women detained.
Sok Sambath, president of the NGO that organized the protest, said he was also detained after police grabbed him by the neck from behind and punched his back as they dragged him into an awaiting truck.
Members of Sok Sambath’s organization, the Association for Development of People Transportation and the Cambodia Freedom Democracy Right, along with garment factory workers and motorbike taxi drivers, intended to march from the Canadia Industrial Zone in the outskirts of the city to the National Assembly.
But within two km from their starting point, police descended on the demonstrators.
Sok Sambath’s pregnant wife, Sar Srey Lak, said that during the altercation, police shoved her and twisted her arm.
“My abdomen is very painful. Police pushed me very hard,” she said.
In recent months, three other protest attempts led by Sok Sambath have been thwarted by police, after he failed to receive permission from the Phnom Penh Municipality.
Since the January 2003 anti-Thai riots, the Municipality has withheld permission from numerous groups requesting the right to protest.
The city’s repeated refusals and the police’s sometimes violent tactics have been the target of widespread criticism, including from King Norodom Sihanouk and Constitutional Council members who claim the clampdown violates the people’s constitutionally-protected right to gather peacefully.
Police on Sunday denied using force against the protesters, and disputed the number of people involved in the demonstration.
Mom Vey, deputy police chief of Meanchey district, said only about 40 people participated in the protest.
“We did not use violent force. We invited them to ride in the truck to the police station,” he said. He said, however, that police had asked the demonstrators to stop their protest, but the group refused to do so.
Police detained the six people because they had not obtained permission from the city and the march was causing a traffic jam, he said.
“After we asked questions and educated them, we let them go home,” Mom Vey said.
Sok Sambath said he was undeterred by yet another thwarted demonstration. “We will continue to hold demonstrations until the government negotiates to reduce gasoline prices,” he said.
The average price of gasoline has reached about $0.75 per liter, up from $0.68 per liter around the same time last year. Critics have called on the government to lower gasoline taxes to offset a global rise in oil prices.
“I am ready to sacrifice my life because even if we don’t demonstrate, we will die,” he said.