Heavily armed police cracked down on a peaceful demonstration by students and motorbike taxi drivers over the spiraling cost of gasoline on Tuesday, briefly detaining five protesters who were forced to sign contracts promising they would “not disturb the peace.”
Suppression of Tuesday’s protest was immediately criticized by human rights organizations and opposition lawmakers who claimed the police action violated the constitutional right to freedom of expression and assembly.
Police nabbed the five men, members of the Students’ Movement for Democracy, as they fled into a hardware shop near Olympic Market during the protest and hauled them into Municipal Police headquarters around 1 pm. They were released three hours later.
“What the police have done to me, to ask me to sign a contract with them, it will strip or kill our spirit,” Students’ Movement President Nouhem Prum Virak, 25, said after he was released.
Municipal Police Major Tith Lon said police were ordered to detain the five men—Nouhem Prum Virak; former SMD president Um Sam An, 30; Yim Sopheap, 31; Iro Channa, 23; and Sar Long Deth, 27—to prevent the demonstration from continuing.
“They made a traffic jam for the public,” he said.
Hundreds of municipal and military police, armed with AK-47 rifles and batons, swarmed in and dispersed the 100 to 300 students and motortaxi drivers, who gathered at the National Assembly around 7 am Tuesday. The crowd then reassembled near Psar Chas, where they were quelled by police, and later made their way to Olympic Market, where the police arrested the five men.
The detained men plan to complain to Municipal Court today, student Um Sam An said.
No one was injured in the protest.
The students were demanding that the government reduce the gasoline tax, which is now at about 100 percent, and to cap the price of gasoline at $0.38 per liter, said SMD President Nouhem Prum Virak.
Cambodia’s gasoline prices has increased about $0.20 since March, hovering between $0.70 to $0.75 on Tuesday.
In Vietnam and Thailand the price of gasoline is about half that. Thailand’s gasoline tax is just 35 percent, while Vietnam does not tax its gas, Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Son Chhay said.
“If the price is reduced, I think everyone will benefit from it,” he said.
Chea Vannath, president for the Center for Social Development, also said the government should take immediate action to manage the price of gas.
“The point is not that the price goes up,” she said Tuesday. “The point is that the tax is too high.”
According to the government’s 2003 budget law, revenue from gasoline tax goes to general government coffers and is distributed to all government programs. Though the numbers of vehicles have increased in Cambodia over the past decade, economists note that government revenue from the gasoline tax has actually decreased. This has been blamed on gasoline smuggling along the Thai and Vietnamese border.
Calls to government spokesmen Khieu Kanharith and finance and tax officials were unsuccessful Tuesday.
The crackdown “violates…civil rights and political rights and violates the Cambodian Constitution,” said Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee released a separate statement, saying, it “strongly opposes the ban on peaceful demonstration and appeals to the government authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and assembly.”
Son Chhay also said, “The government [does] not have the right to refuse these [protesters] solidarity.”
Municipal and police officials have been sharply criticized for suppressing public demonstrations since they limited protests in the capital after the anti-Thai riots in 2003.