Union Leader Grabbed Off Street After Peaceful Protest

Riot police and security guards arrested a union leader for organizing a small rally on Phnom Penh’s busy riverside Sunday afternoon to demand the release of a fellow union leader beaten and arrested by police at a protest earlier this month.

The arrest of Sok Chhun Oeung, vice president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association (IDEA), brings to 24 the number of protesters detained by authorities in Phnom Penh since IDEA president Vorn Pao and nine others were beaten and arrested on January 2 by paratroopers. Another 13 people were arrested the next day, when police also shot dead five garment workers protesting for higher wages.

Union leader Sok Chhun Oeung, right, is dragged away Sunday by riot police and district security guards during a small gathering on the Phnom Penh riverside to call for the release of detained fellow union leader Vorn Pao, who was among 23 people beaten and detained by military police and paratroopers during garment strike protests earlier this month. (Siv Channa)
Union leader Sok Chhun Oeung, right, is dragged away Sunday by riot police and district security guards during a small gathering on the Phnom Penh riverside to call for the release of detained fellow union leader Vorn Pao, who was among 23 people beaten and detained by military police and paratroopers during garment strike protests earlier this month. (Siv Channa)

The Phnom Penh riot police arrived to arrest Mr. Chhun Oeung after the small, peaceful rally had ended, grabbing him and pulling him onto a waiting police truck that quickly drove off, but just as quickly got stuck in traffic on Sisowath Quay, before turning down a closed off road in front of the Royal Palace.

Phnom Penh municipal spokesman Long Dimanche said Mr. Chhun Oeung was arrested for holding the rally without the government’s permission and was being held at the headquarters of the municipal police.

“He was arrested because they gathered without asking for permission,” he said, referring additional questions to the municipal police.

The Interior Ministry imposed an indefinite ban on public gatherings on January 4 but has enforced it selectively.

Long Vuthy, an advocacy officer for IDEA who joined Sunday’s rally, condemned Mr. Chhun Oeung’s arrest.

“The arrest is to intimidate other people and stop them from protesting, and I think Sok Chhun Oeung’s arrest is an injustice,” he said.

Mr. Chhun Oeung had planned to gather some 150 protesters in front of Wat Ounalom, but changed his mind after seeing that dozens of Daun Penh district security guards, armed with batons and wearing motorcycle helmets, who were gathered there in anticipation of the rally, and had already started harassing journalists who had arrived to observe the events.

Mr. Chhun Oeung then changed the location of the rally to a small riverside shrine in front of the Royal Palace, where the security guards soon arrived and started pushing protesters and anyone else who stood in their way on the riverside, occasionally brandishing their batons.

The protesters, who never seemed to number much more than a dozen, sang a few songs including the national anthem and shouted for the release of the 23 detainees before breaking up. It was a few minutes later that the riot police arrived and dragged Mr. Chhun Oeung to a waiting pickup truck.

Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, who joined the rally herself, said Sunday’s arrest was “yet another example of the government’s complete intolerance of any peaceful gathering despite assurances to the international community and Cambodian public that this country is democratic and lawful.”

She said lawyers and fellow IDEA members had gone to the police headquarters to see Mr. Chhun Oeung but were denied access.

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