Phnom Penh security forces on Monday surrounded and beat protesters who were peacefully asking the government to grant a TV license and more radio relay stations to independent broadcaster Mom Sonando, a rare critical voice on Cambodia’s predominantly pro-government airwaves.
Two men were beaten and another temporarily detained after Daun Penh district security guards used their batons to attack protesters. The demonstrators were armed with nothing more than banners and foam TV sets for props. They had ignored police warnings to be quiet.
One protester, Pheng Leng, suffered a bloody gash on his head and was taken to the offices of rights group Licadho for treatment. Witnesses and rights groups said a second man was also beaten.
Witnesses said the two were attacked by district security guards, the government’s go-to forces for dispersing protesters in Phnom Penh.
“They were both beaten on the head and were bleeding,” said Song Sarith, a fellow protester. “This violent crackdown is unacceptable because they only demand their right to freedom of expression. The people have eyes and ears, but their eyes and ears are being covered up by the authorities so they don’t get the real news.”
“This act is brutal and there is no democracy, it is only on paper,” said Eum Ngor, 65. “The Khmer Rouge always acted like this, beating people who have empty hands.”
A third man, identified by Licadho as Sreng Sophal, was briefly detained by Wat Phnom commune police, but soon released. Commune police chief Un Sam Ath confirmed the man’s release but declined to comment further. Kim Vutha, head of the district security guards, also declined to comment.
One hour after the clash, Mr. Sonando arrived at the scene, to the applause of protesters. Security guards and riot police blocked him from marching with his supporters to the Ministry of Information, where he had hoped to stage Monday’s protest.
Mr. Sonando repeatedly tried to walk through the line of guards and police, but was pushed back each time.
“If they want to solve the problem, they just have to give me some more relay stations, then the problem will end,” he told his supporters after his thwarted march. He vowed to keep protesting.
A demonstration Mr. Sonando staged outside the Information Ministry in late January was also broken up by hundreds of military police. At that time, they charged protesters blocking Monivong Boulevard, leaving some bloodied and bruised.
The government has rejected Mr. Sonando’s applications for years, claiming a lack of available frequency. According to its own records, however, the ministry has been approving TV licenses and radio relay stations for others, including Prime Minister Hun Sen’s daughter, Hun Mana.
To support its rejections, the ministry also has accused Mr. Sonando of failing to pay his radio station fees and of representing a political party. Mr. Sonando denies that he has not paid his fees. He has endorsed the opposition CNRP and campaigned for them, but has never run for office, taken up a leadership position in the CNRP or formed any party of his own.
On Monday night, the Phnom Penh municipal government issued a statement blaming the CNRP and unnamed local NGOs for “provoking” the clash between the protesters and the guards. The statement did not explain how the opposition had provoked the scuffle.
In a statement, rights group Adhoc condemned the government for denying Mr. Sonando.
“A free and independent press is vital in a democracy. However, the Cambodian government looks determined to keep a tight rein over access to information,” it said. The group said it was “unacceptable” for the government to deploy ill-trained security guards with no identifying name-tags.
“Adhoc calls on the government to remember its obligations under domestic and international law to respect peaceful assembly and ensure that security forces do not attack demonstrators,” it said. “Adhoc also requests the government to desist from using barely-trained security guards with no means of identification as crowd control.”
The government imposed a ban on demonstrations in early January. But rights groups and opposition lawmakers deem the ban unlawful because it attempts to suspend the constitutional right to freedom of assembly without a properly approved state of emergency.