Seven members of a student activist group were seized by a swarm of plain-clothed police officers Tuesday after being forcibly removed from hired cyclos, which they intended to ride through Phnom Penh in protest of high gasoline prices.
In a demonstration that involved no banners or megaphones, members of the Students’ Movement for Democracy had planned to boycott motorized vehicles for a day and ride six hired cyclos to the riverfront from Monivong Boulevard.
Only minutes into their peddle-power protest, a group of more than 50 Flying Tiger and riot police forced the procession to a halt by ordering the cyclo drivers to disperse.
During a brief scuffle, police grabbed and dragged seven of the students, some of them by their collars, into the Chamkar Mon police station. About 15 minutes later, police brought the students into awaiting cars and carted them off to the Chamkar Mon district office. Among those detained were Um Sam An, the former director of the Students’ Movement, and Ken Sara, a member of the group who was previously convicted of inciting last year’s anti-Thai riots.
All seven students were released from the district office one and one-half hours later, after they were forced to sign and thumbprint a written statement,
explaining their actions, said Pang Sokheoun, director of the Students’ Movement, who was also detained. No charges were made.
“I think the Cambodian government is currently becoming a dictatorship. It tries to eliminate the people’s right to expression, which is guaranteed by the constitution,” Pang Sokheoun said after his release. “We decided to ride only bicycles and cyclos because we are on strike, I don’t know why police prohibited us.”
During the struggle, Pang Sokheoun said officers stood behind him and beat him with their elbows and fist while he tried to free his friend, Sorn Dara, deputy director of the movement, from the grasp of other officers.
“My back was beat up, the police’s actions were very cruel,” he said.
Chamkar Mon district police Chief Ouch Sokhun denied that police used violence on the students. He said that the protesters were dragged away by police because they were blocking traffic in the middle of the road.
“We protect the security, and this group caused disorder,” he said.
He also suggested that the protest was organized as a larger ploy to benefit the students.
“I think they are unpatriotic students. They hold the strike because they want the police to beat them so they can seek asylum,” he said.
Since the January 2003 anti-Thai riots, the government has been widely criticized for its sometimes violent clamp on peaceful demonstrations. The Phnom Penh Municipality has also denied permission for public protests, though some see the ban as a clear violation of citizens’ constitutionally-protected right to assembly peacefully.
Though the municipality had earlier rejected the Students’ Movement protest, Pang Sokheoun on Tuesday said the organization will continue to hold demonstrations.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 17 local NGOs, condemned the police’s actions in a statement on Tuesday.
“This elimination of the freedom of expression and the right to gather is a serious abuse of the constitution,” the statement read.
Last week, security at Olympic Market also detained several volunteers for the Students’ Movement as they handed out fliers urging people to participate in Tuesday’s gasoline strike.