Four top lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were detained and at least 30 people injured Tuesday following clashes which erupted when CNRP supporters moved to end the government blockade of Freedom Park, the country’s main protest grounds in the capital Phnom Penh.
The clash between the CNRP supporters, numbering around 200, and security guards marked the worst violence in Cambodia since a deadly crackdown on opposition-backed striking garment workers in January, which led to the closure of the site to the public.
Local rights group Licadho said in a statement Tuesday that the clashes began when security guards tried to remove a protest banner hung by opposition supporters from a barbed wire barricade which read “Free the Freedom Park.”
Dozens of security personnel and protesters fought with clubs, rocks, and flagpoles, leaving at least 17 guards and 14 CNRP supporters injured, and forcing police to step in and disperse the crowd by firing smoke bombs, Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath told RFA’s Khmer Service.
Police arrested three elected CNRP lawmakers—Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum, and Men Sothavrin—accusing them of inciting the bloody clash.
Following their arrest, some 1,000 CNRP supporters gathered in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Headquarters to demand their release, at which point authorities arrested another CNRP lawmaker, Ho Vann, according to Am Sam Ath.
Police are believed to be looking for a fifth opposition MP, Riel Khemarin.
The four lawmakers in custody have been officially charged with “provocation to commit crimes” and will face a hearing Wednesday in which a judge will determine whether they can be freed on bail ahead of their trial, Am Sam Ath said.
If convicted, the four could face up to two years in prison and fines of up to 4,000,000 riel (U.S. $1,000).
This was the first time opposition lawmakers have been detained and formally charged since disputed elections in July last year which had led to massive protests mostly last year.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was declared the victor in the elections despite allegations of fraud, leading to a CNRP boycott of the National Assembly, or parliament.
Freedom Park, the only place where protests were allowed in the capital until its closure in January, had become a focal point for protests against Hun Sen’s rule in the wake of the disputed polls.
Hun Sen has announced that a protest ban imposed after the deadly January crackdown would be lifted, but the authorities have refused to allow public protests.
Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior condemned the clashes on Tuesday as “violence provoked by an anarchic group aimed at causing social disorder.”
In a statement, the ministry said that at least 38 security guards had been injured, including three critically.
“The Ministry of Interior is saddened by the incident and urges all people to refrain from violence to protect security and order,” the statement said.
Phnom Penh’s City Hall, in a separate statement, condemned the violence as an “illegal gathering” by people seeking to “disturb the social order and the harmony of the people,” and urged authorities to bring those suspected of provoking the incident to justice.
The CNRP said that the party would continue to use nonviolent methods to demand the reopening of Freedom Park.
“We adhere to nonviolent principles to support any movement in demand of freedom and the freedom of expression,” a party statement said.
“The CNRP demands that authorities unconditionally release all lawmakers and the reopening of Freedom Park to allow people to express their views.”
CNRP officials told RFA that the four opposition lawmakers had been questioned by police and that no one had been permitted to meet with them so far during their detention.
Licadho’s Am Sam Ath said he feared that the government and the CPP might use the arrest of the lawmakers as leverage in talks to resolve the country’s political stalemate following the elections.
“The four are not responsible for any crime,” he said.
“They were the organizers of the protest, but they didn’t provoke the violence. The security forces on the other side carried clubs, so it wasn’t the responsibility of the CNRP.”
Last month, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi visited Freedom Park, saying he was sorry to see barbed wire surrounding it.
It gave “the impression that there has been an attempt to put democracy in a cage in Cambodia,” he said, calling on the government to reinstate the right to peaceful assembly, including at the site, for all Cambodians.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.