About 300 monks, workers and activists were prevented from marching along Phnom Penh’s factory-lined Veng Sreng Street on Saturday to mark the slaying of five striking workers there by military police a year before.
Carrying Cambodian and Buddhist flags, the marchers turned out to remember the day military police with AK-47s descended on the city’s dusty industrial outskirts to put down a nationwide strike of garment workers.
Led by monks and CNRP lawmaker Real Camerin, the group began moving along the street before they were met by a familiar scene as hundreds of military police bearing AK-47s set up an armored police line.
Rath Srieng, the commander of Phnom Penh’s military police forces, who last year personally directed the suppression of the strike, was again on the scene directing the forces.
When marchers tried to sidestep the narrow police line on the wide street, the commander seized some of the marchers’ flags and grabbed a megaphone.
“When you violate the law, the authorities have the right to keep public order,” Maj. Gen. Srieng shouted over the megaphone. “City Hall does not allow you to hold this [march], therefore you have to break up.”
In an apparent fit of rage, and in video footage that was widely shared on social media, Maj. Gen. Srieng then pushed a young woman who criticized his actions.
“Do not protest! It is my right!” Maj. Gen. Srieng said to her.
The commander then turned to a monk next to him and threatened his arrest.
“If you do not break up, I will take you away, because you are the one who is leading this,” he said.
The marchers never pressed past the police line and soon dispersed, as Maj. Gen. Srieng’s forces monitored tuk-tuks and cars passing back into the city for activists.
Asked why forces armed with AK-47s were sent to the march, military police spokesman Kheng Tito said Sunday it was standard.
“It is normal since ‘armed forces’ are equipped with weapons,” Brig. Gen. Tito said.
“We use the weapons to protect people’s lives, including those people who were marching.”
At its Phnom Penh offices, the CNRP on Sunday held its own ceremony to remember the killings, having been banned from holding a commemorative ceremony in Freedom Park.
City Hall released a statement saying that permission for the ceremony had been denied because it was a religious event, and thus should have been held within the confines of a pagoda.
“By using Freedom Park to hold the ceremony, it seems that the CNRP is trying to take advantage by doing political business through incitement, the causing of chaos, and impacting security and stability,” City Hall said.
At the ceremony, CNRP Acting President Pol Ham, who is leading the party while opposition leader Sam Rainsy and deputy leader Kem Sokha are overseas, ridiculed the ban on a ceremony in Freedom Park.
“I’m sorry Mr. City Hall Governor [Pa Socheatvong],” he said. “Speaking honestly, you have no capabilities and you are afraid of shadows. What would we possibly have done? We just wanted to light incense to pray.”
Sam Rainsy Party President Kong Korm also spoke during the ceremony, slamming the news that Prince Norodom Ranariddh is returning to lead Funcinpec, eight years after being ousted from the now ailing royalist party.
“Today they have tried to strengthen Funcinpec. It is useless. The people no longer trust Funcinpec; now they only trust the CNRP,” Mr. Korm said, slamming the party for supporting a controversial 2005 border treaty with Vietnam.
“Funcinpec has made a big mistake,” he said, drawing parallels between the treaty and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s armed takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea last year.
“Now you hear about Putin using his forces to take Crimea, and it is likely to happen to Cambodia,” Mr. Korm said. “Cambodia is like Crimea because today, Cambodia is under Vietnam’s influence because of the treaty of 2005.”
“Cambodia is still the January 7 [country] of the Vietnamese,” said Mr. Korm, who was an adviser to Mr. Hun Sen in the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the 1980s.
Separately, in footage of a press conference apparently filmed last month but released online by the Council of Ministers late Friday, Press and Quick Reaction Unit spokesman Keo Remy defended the 2014 crackdown.
Mr. Remy said the CNRP had caused the chaos and killings of workers by encouraging the nationwide strike demanding a monthly minimum salary of $160.
“I would like to appeal to our citizens, and male and female workers, to not be frogs,” Mr. Remy said, explaining that frogs are highly susceptible to bright-colored bait.
“People just take red, blue, or purple flowers as bait in order to catch frogs, and the frogs eat it,” he said.
“Please, try not to be frogs,” Mr. Remy repeated. “The promises made by the CNRP were merely empty words saying the increases will be this or that.
“You forgot yourselves and you turned into frogs, jumping to eat flowers that were just bait. Try not to be the frogs or tools whose hands they can grab at in order to fulfill their political ambitions.”
(Additional reporting by Hul Reaksmey)