Deadly violence broke out Sunday as tens of thousands of Cambodians protested for the second weekend in a row to back calls for an independent probe into charges of election fraud, which the opposition said has robbed them of victory in the July 28 polls.
Security forces shot dead one protester and wounded several others when they opened fire and used tear gas and water cannons in clashes with supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the tension-filled capital Phnom Penh, human rights groups said.
The clashes occurred at the sidelines of a 20,000-strong CNRP protest rally in Freedom Park and a day before scheduled talks between Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy aimed at ending their dispute over the elections.
Sam Rainsy has challenged the official election result which had declared Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party (CPP) the victor, citing fraud and other election irregularities, including the removal of one million voters from the electoral rolls.
The unidentified man who was killed had a bullet wound in his head. He was still wearing a yellow head band with the words, "We demand Justice" worn mostly by CNRP supporters who had participated in the protest.
Human rights group Licadho said he was shot dead by police along a key intersection near the Kbal Thnal bridge where security blocks had been imposed. Three others were seriously wounded by gunshots, it said.
"One died and three were seriously wounded as police shot at demonstrators and travelers [using the bridge] during the clash," Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath told RFA's Khmer Service.
Tensions rose after police blocked two main roads near the bridge leading into and exiting from Phnom Penh at 6 p.m, preventing people from traveling to their homes, he said, adding that about 10 people had been arrested, with their whereabouts unknown.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said military police fired into the air when protesters attempted to smash a barrier in the middle of a road leading to the bridge.
Tensions run high
Protesters pulling away a barbed wire barricade near the royal palace, Sept. 15, 2013. (RFA Photo)
The shooting violence "goes to show that tensions are running extremely high and that there is a risk of elevated violence over the next two days," CCHR President Ou Virak warned. "I urge the authorities to ensure that this tragedy is an isolated incident."
He called on the CNRP to urge its supporters "to act calmly" and the caretaker government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to "intervene to prevent and punish the use of such unacceptable force by police and military."
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said he was unable to confirm the death and denied that security forces had fired live ammunition, Agence-France-Presse reported.
"The military police used only batons and shields and police used tear gas. We did not use live rounds," he said.
Police also clashed separately with CNRP supporters as they removed several barbed wire barricades near the Royal palace and dumped them in a nearby river,
Police fired smoke grenades, tear gas, and water cannon at the protesters, who retaliated by throwing rocks, shoes, and other objects at the police. One policeman was hit in the head with a piece of iron while three protesters were also injured, according to CCHR.
Sam Rainsy visited the scene of the clash and condemned the violence and urged the crowd — which by then had swelled to nearly 1,000 people — to stay calm and return to the main protest site at Freedom Park, the Associated Press reported. The crowd later dispersed.'Nonviolence'
A group of CNRP supporters spending the night at Freedom Park, Sept. 15, 2013. (RFA Photo)
CNRP said in a statement that its "nonviolent demonstration" was confined to Freedom Park and was aimed at demanding the setting up of an independent coalition committee to "seek truth and justice for voters."
"If there are any opportunists who provoke problems outside the Freedom Park, the CNRP would like to deny any responsibilities for that and urge the authorities to take measures against those people,” it said.
Sam Rainsy told the Freedom Park rally that people "are asking for justice because their ballots have been stolen," saying the protests will continue until the opposition demands are met. "Brothers, this is an important mission to rescue the nation," he told the demonstrators.
Sam Rainsy met Hun Sen for the first time in a post-election meeting Saturday called by King Norodom Sihamoni in a bid to end the political crisis, but there was no breakthrough and the two parties agreed to continue with talks Monday.
Sam Rainsy meanwhile called on King Sihamoni to postpone the first sitting of the post-election parliament which the monarch had called for on Sept. 23 until the election dispute is resolved.
"It is most appropriate that we investigate [the irregularities] and respect the voters' will. We shouldn't rush, otherwise it's against the voters' will," Sam Rainsy told RFA. "The King respects the people so he can't do anything which contradicts the voters' will." Nationwide protests
CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha said if Monday's talks end without a resolution to the dispute, the party would forge ahead with demonstrations later on that day and Tuesday.
“If we have staged mass demonstrations for three days [Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday] and there is still no resolution, mass demonstrations will explode across the country,” he warned.
The Ministry of Interior said the CNRP was given permission to hold the rally Sunday based on an understanding that supporters will not march from Freedom Park.
"It is sad that the CNRP has breached the ministry’s instruction that the demonstrators should not march," the ministry’s spokesman Khieu Sopheak said.
The ministry had also ordered CNRP to limit the number of protesters to 10,000 and wanted the gathering to end by 6 p.m.
But thousands of demonstrators continued to remain at Freedom Park on Sunday night, wrapped in blankets and huddled under sheets, vowing to remain there until the party's demand is met. Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.