Cambodian police on Monday used electric batons and smoke bombs to break up a protest in the capital by supporters of independent Beehive Radio angered over the government’s refusal to grant the station licenses to expand its broadcast range and establish a TV station.
The crackdown, which left at least seven people injured, came as nongovernmental groups urged the United Nations to censure Cambodia for a failing rights record ahead of a review by the world body on Tuesday.
On Monday, hundreds of supporters of Beehive Radio, led by station director and government critic Mam Sonando, marched through a number of police barricades on the streets of Phnom Penh in defiance of a ban on public gatherings, before congregating in front of the Ministry of Information.
The protesters had demanded the reversal of a ruling by the government last week preventing Beehive from boosting its signal strength and producing television programming, claiming no frequencies were available for the station to use.
Most of Cambodia’s existing stations are closely allied with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The protesters were met by hundreds of police officers and security guards led by Phnom Penh municipality military police chief Roth Sreng, who gave the crowd five minutes to clear the area before advancing with truncheons and shields, and firing smoke grenades, protesters told RFA’s Khmer Service.
During the melee, several protesters were struck in the face and left bleeding. One man was seen being repeatedly kicked and punched by military police until he was knocked to the ground unconscious, they said.
The Agence France-Presse news agency reported that journalists, including one of its photographers, were also attacked by security personnel.
Around 20 protesters formed a human shield around Mam Sonando during the clash, protecting him from harm until the crowd dispersed.
Rights groups transported the wounded to nearby hospitals for treatment.
Mam Sonando told RFA he was saddened that authorities had decided to respond to the nonviolent protest with such force.
“I led people from other provinces who wanted to express their view that Beehive Radio be allowed to increase its signal strength,” he said.
“I didn’t anticipate that there would be a violent crackdown. They fired smoke grenades at us … The government should be happy that the people want to listen to the radio [as a source of news].”
An injured protester said that the police advance was largely unexpected because the demonstration had occurred in an orderly fashion.
“I don’t know why they hit me,” he said. “They struck me several times and my skull is fractured.”
Local rights group Adhoc’s chief investigator Ny Chakriya said that he was distressed by the authorities’ decision to crack down on unarmed demonstrators.
“The demonstrators only held banners and flags.”
The authorities, however, defended their action, with police chief Roth Sreng calling it “the officers’ duty.”
National Military Police spokesman Keng Tito said that the police were obligated to protect public order.
“City hall had already banned any march or gathering that would affect public order and security,” he said.
“[Protesters] can practice their freedom of expression by submitting petitions to the authorities.”
Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith could not be reached for comment.
Mam Sonando was convicted in October 2012 for alleged involvement in a secession plot, but last March, a court reversed the decision and released him from prison.
In June, the activist told RFA that his radio station risked closure following government restrictions and a refusal to allow the station to expand its broadcast range.
He said that the Ministry of Information was restricting overseas groups from buying airtime at the Phnom Penh-based Beehive and had turned down requests to set up relay stations to beam to the provinces.
Mam Sonando maintains that millions of listeners in the villages want to listen to his radio broadcasts and has expressed concern his station may be forced to close down due to funding problems.
Authorities have violently shut down several recent street protests, including a demonstration Sunday in support of garment workers demanding higher wages and the release of 23 people arrested during a crackdown on striking workers earlier this month, which left at least four people dead.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by Sam Rainsy, has also held repeated protests in the capital since Hun Sen was declared the victor of the country’s July 28 national election, which it contends was rigged through voter fraud.
Also on Monday, right groups called on the United Nations to condemn Cambodia for its flagging human rights record ahead of a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday.
“Hun Sen’s government violates human rights on a daily basis by violently preventing the opposition, trade unions, activists and others from gathering to demand political change,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva director at New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“Countries at the Human Rights Council should condemn this brutal crackdown and insist the Cambodian government engage in serious reforms.”
Human Rights Watch said that through the end of 2013, it found that “the human rights situation in the country had worsened significantly since its last [UPR] in 2009” and slammed Cambodia for reportedly planning not to send high-level representation to Tuesday’s review, “suggesting that it does not take the process seriously.”
“This shows Hun Sen’s contempt not just for the U.N. process, but for the rights of Cambodia’s people,” de Rivero said. “U.N. member countries should put the government on notice that it will not tolerate continued backsliding.”
A coalition of rights groups also slammed the government’s rights record Monday, saying it would urge the international community to address “the increasingly severe crackdown on free speech” at the U.N. meeting on Tuesday, according to a statement issued by the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR).
The coalition, which also includes PEN International, ARTICLE 19 and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the government ban on peaceful protests and use of excessive force “violate fundamental universal human rights and contravene the Cambodian constitution.”
“Following last year’s elections, it is clear that the Cambodian people are no longer willing to remain quiet. People in the tens of thousands are now risking their lives to speak out and demand the society they want,” said Thomas Hughes, executive director of ARTICLE 19.
“The government’s modus operandi of squashing dissent can no longer continue. It’s time to respect free speech and human rights. That’s the message that the international community must now stand behind.”
Ou Virak, president of the CCHR, said it is time for the Cambodian government to be confronted with its lack of progress with regards to human rights.
“During this UPR, the international community must address the systematic abuses of fundamental rights occurring throughout the country and the extensive system of impunity which has become characteristic of Cambodia,” he said.
“That being said, while the UPR will shed light on the [government’s] failures in relation to human rights, in order to ensure it becomes an effective review mechanism, the international community must follow up on its recommendations.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.