Cambodian Opposition Leaders Go Into Hiding Amid Protest Crackdown

2014-01-04
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Cambodian security personnel dismantle temporary shelters put up by opposition protesters at their base in Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, Jan 4, 2014.
RFA

Updated at 11:05 a.m. EST on 2014/1/06

Cambodia's opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha went into hiding Saturday as the government stepped up its crackdown on protests against Prime Minister Hun Sen following deadly violence.

A day after police shot dead four people during workers' protests for higher wages, the government  dispersed supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from their main protest site at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh and banned further street demonstrations.

The authorities also issued summonses to CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, who have led daily rallies calling on Hun Sen to quit and hold new elections, to appear in court to answer charges of inciting social unrest.

The crackdown prompted the CNRP to call off mass demonstrations scheduled on Sunday, saying supporters will gather at the party's headquarters for a Buddhist ceremony to pray for the four dead and dozens injured when police opened fire at striking garment workers on Friday.

It was the first deadly violence since work stoppages began at factories 10 days ago over a dispute on minimum wages.

Amid fears that Hun Sen, who has ruthlessly crushed his political opponents during his 28 years in power, would arrest the top CNRP leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have gone into hiding, opposition sources told RFA's Khmer Service.

They issued a statement however urging supporters to remain calm for the interest of personal security and to avoid confrontation with the security forces.

"Even though we are in this situation, we still maintain our stand and we are both seeking ways to communicate with countries who are our friends to restore and normalize Cambodia's current political situation and to achieve our goals," they said.

Opposition leaders in 'safe place'

CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua told RFA that Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, whose mobile phones have been switched off, are in a "safe place," declining to elaborate.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has issued separate summonses ordering Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to appear before a court on Jan. 14 on charges of "incitement to provoke criminal acts and provoke social unrest."

CNRP has refused to say whether the leaders will appear in court.

Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia shortly before July elections from self-imposed exile in France after being given a royal pardon for charges that he said were politically motivated.

His return reinvigorated the opposition, which denied Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) a two-thirds majority in parliament, according to official results.

But the CNRP charged that fraud and other irregularities in the elections had robbed it of an outright victory and held protests calling for Hun Sen to resign and hold new elections.

U.S. embassy denies refuge claim

Another opposition lawmaker, Meach Sovannara, who is a Cambodian-American, posted a video on his Facebook page saying that he had sought refuge at the U.S. embassy. But the U.S. embassy refuted the claim.

On Saturday morning, police armed with shields and batons dispersed hundreds of CNRP supporters from their main protest base in Freedom Park, where they had been camping and protesting for three weeks demanding that Hun Sen step down.

About 1,000 police personnel and other security forces and plainclothes officers wearing red ribbons cleared the protesters and dismantled the temporary shelters they had built at Freedom Park.  

The demonstrators regrouped at a nearby location but security forces broke up the group again.

Move to 'restore calm'

Government spokesman Keo Remy told a press conference that the government moved to clear Freedom Park in a bid to "stop social disorder and to restore calm in the country."

He urged the CNRP to return to talks with Hun Sen's CPP over election complaints.

"Those who incite people and their supporters will have to bear responsibility," Keo Remy said. "CNRP's lawmakers donated food to protestors and incited them to revolt," he said.

"The demonstration has negatively affected the country, so please come back to talks," he said. "Nothing is better than talks."

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann condemned the latest actions by the authorities and vowed that the party would respond through "peaceful means."

Thirteen charged

Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has charged 13 people for allegedly inciting violence during protests Friday by garment and footwear workers demanding that minimum wages be doubled.

Family members of the 13 said that some of them were not involved in the protests n what the local rights group Licadho said was "the worst state violence against civilians to hit Cambodia in 15 years."

The protest, demanding a minimum wage of U.S. $160 per month, followed similar action by workers in another industrial district of the city on Thursday, which rights groups said was dispersed by armed military police.

The UN's special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, has criticized Friday's shootings and called on the government to launch an investigation, while Washington appealed for peaceful dialogue and denounced the violence, urging all sides to exercise restraint.

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.