Sit-In Crumbles After Early-Morning Crackdown

No Deaths, Few Injuries Reported

Riot police armed with AK-47s and electric batons drove demonstrators out of their two-week-old protest camp Tuesday, chasing them through the streets and later firing into the air to disperse the increasingly angry crowd.

At least one person was hospitalized with a bullet wound in the second day of confrontation be­tween police and protesters. Se­curity was heightened around the capital Tuesday night.

The move was necessary to maintain public order, government spokesman Khieu Kanha­rith said.

“It is not a crackdown. We just moved them out,” Khieu Kan­harith said. “This demonstration was starting to get out of control.”

It took police less than five minutes Tuesday to clear about 500 to 700 people from what opposition leaders had dubbed “Demo­cracy Square.”

Intervention police officers from the Interior Ministry surrounded the camp and moved in at about 1:30 pm, kicking down bamboo tent poles and herding out wide-eyed protesters.

“Move! Move, or we’ll shoot you!” shouted one armed officer into a tent full of people.

“Beat them! Beat them…. Shoot! Shoot!” other police yelled at each other.

One woman stumbled as she tried to flee, and a policeman raised his rifle and slammed the barrel into her back. She struggled up and started to run again, but took another blow before escaping.

Protesters retreated down Sothearos Boulevard, but later began to push back, throwing rocks, bottles and even makeshift Molotov cocktails, which burned on the road in front of the Royal Palace. The riot police fired hundreds of rounds into the air and chased the demonstrators down the river front and several side streets.

It was believed to be the strongest government action against protesters since police and soldiers crushed a student demonstration in Phnom Penh in 1991. And it capped six weeks of rising tension since the July 26 elections.

Funcinpec parliamentarian-elect Mu Sochua condemned the police action Tuesday. “We’re totally outraged. We are really dis­ap­­pointed, but we are not surprised by the government and Hun Sen’s tactics of violence and the oppression of the people,” she said. She said that Funcinpec had been planning to hold a Buddhist cer­­­emony at the site that afternoon for Chem Pich, a demon­strator killed Monday night in confrontation with police outside the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana.

However, Khieu Kanharith said the shutdown of the protest was justified. “It does not mean a crackdown on democracy or dem­­on­strations. It doesn’t mean that from now on you cannot have a demonstration,” he said. “But enough is enough. We feel that all these people have gone beyond the limit.”

In the past two weeks, Democracy Square has remained a peaceful demonstration, save for the vandalizing of the Cambodia-Vietnam Liberation Monument. The sit-in protest was initiated by opposition activist Sam Rainsy and joined by Funcinpec to high­­light opposition claims of fraud in the July 26 election, won by the CPP. Those claims have never been substantiated, but the re­­fusal of election authorities to do more than a few re­­counts have cemented sus­­picions and opposition parties have refused to form a coalition government. The rallies turned into a tent city with a steady pop­ulation of 500 to 700, which swelled to 10,000 or more when Sam Rainsy or Fun­­­cinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh spoke. The site also became a forum for anti-government, anti-Hu­n Sen rhetoric, with many of the demonstrators demanding the second prime minister giv­e up power in the next government.

An independent group called the Stu­d­ents for Democracy–– which says it is not affiliated with either Fun­cinpec or the Sam Rainsy Party but has been present at the sit-in­––have marched through city streets for the past six days, blocking traffic and sometimes threatening violence.

Some government officials have blamed demonstration supporters for the beating deaths of ethnic Vietnamese. Second Prime Min­ister Hun Sen had ordered the protest shut down by midnight Monday in response to a grenade explosion outside his house. A flurry of negotiations delayed the shutdown, but only for 13 hours, as it turned out.

Four truckloads of soldiers and six fire trucks pulled up to the main protest site. Several dozen police strode in, waving guns and hissing electric batons at protesters to herd them out of the camp. At least two fire engines opened  wat­er cannons on the tent city. Many protesters began to flee as police and trucks approached. But confusion prevailed for a min­ute as fire trucks sprayed pro­t­e­sters with water from different dir­­ec­tions, driving some of them deeper into the camp in confusion. The dem­onstrators were driven out and down Sothea­ros Boul­evard within minutes.

“I think what the soldiers are doing is completely wrong,” yelled Chan Rabot, 19, a business stu­dent. “We don’t beat them or throw things at them. Why do they come and chase us just because we demand de­m­oc­racy?” A few minutes later, though, the students were throwing things, rocks, bottles and even plastic water bottles filled with burning gasoline. The police, who had by then put unarmed riot police in the front lines, advanced with shields to deflect the rocks. But after several pushes back and forth, armed officers began to fire in the air. No deaths were reported Tuesday. Calmette Hospital staff reported treating only two injuries related to the crackdown—a cyclo-driver with a minor head wound and a policeman cut on his chin.

At least three people were treated at Ta Cheng Hospital, in southern Phnom Penh, for injuries sustained during police action against demonstrators. Pen Tin, 32, took three stitches after he said he was struck in the head with the barrel of an AK-47. San Sitha, a 29-year-old soldier who defected to the government from the Khmer Rouge, had a large welt and bruise on the side of his face after being clubbed. Student Son Sawath, 22, was taken to Ta Cheng Hospital with a bullet wound to his arm. “The police shot to frighten the demonstrators,” he said. He said he saw others take bullets, but doesn’t know what happened to them.

A local human rights group reported assisting seven monks for “serious injuries” and others with minor wounds.

By 3 pm, most of the demonstrators had been dispersed and security officers were stationed in keys areas to keep them from returning.

And by 4 pm, it was quiet at Democracy Square, save for the rumble of a recently arrived bulldozer. There was a crack as the wood of the makeshift stage splintered under the heavy equipment. Left-behind clothes and mats were being scavenged, sometimes by police.

The Information Ministry released a statement Thursday appealing to Cambodians “not to participate in any pro­test that will destroy the national honor, public properties, social order, that will violate the law, incite acts of violence and anarchy and badly affect your living conditions.

“Please draw your attention

to the national benefits and cooperate to support the nation to become one unified nation of dem­ocracy,” the statement concluded.

Khmer Citizen’s Party Pre­sident Nguon Soeur released a statement applauding the forced removal of the sit-in dem­on­stra­tors.

(Additional reporting by Ka­ren Coates and Konstantin Rich­ter)

 

 

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