by RFA Khmer / Radio Free Asia
Security forces in the Cambodian capital violently dispersed Labor Day demonstrators gathered near the city’s Freedom Park Thursday, injuring at least five people, including bystanders, according to eyewitnesses and rights groups.
They took the action after opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders finished speaking to a crowd of nearly 1,000 who had gathered near the park in defiance of a January ban on public rallies.
Following the leaders’ departure, some 100 security guards set upon the demonstrators who had poured into the city’s streets to press for better working conditions for garment workers.
Demonstrators called for an increase in the minimum wage and the release of garment workers and activists detained in strikes in early January, which had prompted a violent crackdown and a ban on demonstrations as well as the closure of Freedom Park for public rallies.
Labor unions had been denied permission to lead May Day rallies in the park, which authorities barricaded on Wednesday with barbed wire fences.
Security forces and city police attacked the crowd with wooden sticks and metal tubes, beating demonstrators and passersby indiscriminately, eyewitnesses said.
Local rights group Licadho said doctors treated five injured people, one with stitches to his head.
One of those injured, motor taxi driver Srun Sophal, said he had not been participating in the rally and had been driving through when he was attacked.
“They slapped me, and my motorbike crashed,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Another of the victims, Im Roly, said he too was driving by on a motorbike when he was attacked.
“They beat me 15 or 20 times,” he said, adding that security guards continued to hit him after he fell off the vehicle onto the ground.
‘Addicted to violence’
Licadho’s senior investigator Am Sam Ath, who witnessed the incident, condemned the security forces’ use of violence against protesters.
“They are addicted to using violence, and they indiscriminately attacked many people,” he said.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dymong said the security forces’ actions had been prompted by demonstrators’ attempts to storm Freedom Park.
“We wouldn’t have used violence if the people hadn’t stormed the park in defiance of City Hall’s orders,” he said.
Local reports said labor unions had on Wednesday night abandoned plans to gather in Freedom Park in defiance of the ban, planning to march in a different direction instead.
Opposition condemns ban
Speaking to the crowd before the violence, opposition leader Sam Rainsy condemned the government for banning workers from holding a Labor Day rally.
Earlier in the day, he and CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha gathered with demonstrators on Veng Sreng Road to honor those who died in the Jan. 3 crackdown on striking garment workers.
In that violence, security forces had opened fire on demonstrators, killing five and leaving nearly 40 wounded.
A day later, police violently dispersed CNRP-led mass demonstrations which denounced last July’s elections as rigged and the Ministry of Interior imposed a ban on public gatherings.
Prime Minister Hun Sen rescinded the ban in February, but no demonstrations have been held in Freedom Park since.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.