At least one person was killed and five policemen were injured Sunday in Sihanoukville as a second day of protests over a suspected toxic waste dump turned violent in the coastal town.
The controversial shipment of 3,000 tons of Taiwanese industrial waste prompted the suspension of at least 20 government officials over the weekend, and Prime Minister Hun Sen promised a full investigation.
On Sunday, more than 300 angry protesters in Sihanoukville stoned government offices, trashed a hotel and tossed furniture from windows, leaving a heap of burning mattresses and shattered glass their wake.
One man was killed by falling furniture, Sihanoukville Police Chief Em Bun Sath said. Five policemen were injured by rocks the protesters threw at them.
The protesters were apparently venting fury at officials and businessmen they believe are responsible for allowing the shipment of industrial waste tainted with the poisonous metal mercury to enter Cambodia. The waste entered Sihanoukville’s port Nov 30 and was dumped four days later 15 km outside the city.
The protests began Saturday and intensified Sunday. Both days, the demonstrators called for the waste to be sent back to Taiwan.
“We demand that the hazardous waste be shipped back immediately,” moto-taxi driver Yin Bunthoeun said Saturday. “It doesn’t kill only me and my wife, but also kills my children.”
Protests were fueled by reports that some people were dead and others had fallen ill because of the waste. Sihanoukville Hospital reported one port worker dead and two others ill, but medical worker Chhim Nhen could not confirm whether the cases were related to the waste.
In order to control the riots Sunday, police used water cannons and a loudspeaker to appeal for calm. Police also unleashed several volleys of gunfire over the heads of a mob ransacking the home of one of Sihanoukville’s deputy governors.
The crackle of gunfire sent the mob of more than 300 scurrying out of First Deputy Governor Khim Bo’s mansion and racing down side streets, but not before they had wrecked the CPP official’s home and set fire to his Land Cruiser.
On Saturday, as many as 350 people staged protests. Demonstrators drove motorbikes through the town and held banners and posters to demand the authorities ship back the waste. One of the banners read: “The government must ship the poisonous waste away.”
The protest turned violent later Saturday when demonstrators approached the office of Camcontrol, the organization in charge of inspecting goods entering and exiting the country.
Camcontrol’s sign was ripped down, trampled and towed away by a protester’s pickup truck. Demonstrators accused Camcontrol of turning a blind eye when the Taiwanese company Formosa Plastics brought in the waste earlier this month.
As many as 20 port officials, customs and Camcontrol officials have been suspended in the dumping scandal, Director of Customs In Saroeun said Sunday. More are expected to be officially suspended today, said co-Minister of Interior You Hockry.
Prime Minister Hun Sen said Saturday that he would take the investigation to the highest levels.
“If the decision was made by a minister, the Council of Ministers or a prime minister, all those involved must be suspended immediately,” Hun Sen told reporters at Pochentong Airport on his return from China.
“We will not allow anyone to be free from this responsibility… 3,000 tons is very large. So if there had not been high-level involvement, this could not have been managed,” he said.
Efforts to protect local villagers from possible contamination began Sunday and will continue today, Environment Minister Mok Mareth said.
Bulldozers are building huge walls of earth around the mountain of waste, which resembles ordinary dirt and gravel. Environmental workers plan to cover the site with plastic sheets to prevent the waste from getting soaked with rain and contaminating groundwater, Mok Mareth said. Workers could start to pack up the waste as early as today, he added.
Government officials met Friday at the Council of Ministers to discuss what to do with the shipment and how to prevent Cambodia from becoming a dumping ground for the region’s waste.
“If the case ends in silence and with no solution, it means Cambodia will have lost the war,” said Heng Vong Bunchhat, a senior adviser to the Council of Ministers. “We have to take this problem very seriously and not stop talking about it.”
The government has said it wants the waste shipped back to where it came from. A company representative from Formosa Plastics, whom the Taiwanese government has fined $1,000 for shipping the waste, told The Associated Press last week that there was “no way” the company would take the waste back.
(Reporting by Van Roeun, Kay Kimsong and Mhari Saito)