Calling the move a “training exercise,” Cambodian anti-riot police on Monday cleared a park in the capital Phnom Penh of hundreds of protesters who had gathered to air grievances against the government, sources said.
As police moved in carrying weapons and electric batons, protesters reassembled about 100 meters (330 feet) away to continue the deliberations of their “People’s Congress,” vowing to openly express their concerns over land grabs, corruption, and government influence over the country’s judiciary, among other complaints.
The police action ousted leaders of nongovernment organizations and about 500 villagers from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, the scene of frequent anti-government rallies following disputed national elections in July.
“It is beyond belief that the police would use the park to conduct an ‘exercise,’” Multi-Sectors Network member Chrek Sophea told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday.
“Never before have I seen them station fire trucks in the park,” she said.
“Our congress was set up to send messages to the government and other politicians,” Chrek Sophea said, adding that although Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen has promised in the past to convene similar gatherings under government sponsorship, he has never followed through.
'Security and order'
Speaking anonymously, a police official said that anti-riot police were holding exercises in the park in order to “maintain security and order” for the Cambodian people.
Asked why police had chosen Freedom Park, already occupied by the protesters, for their exercise, he refused to answer.
“This is yet another example of [government] abuse of freedom of expression,” rights group Community Legal Education Center director Yeng Virak said, adding that the protesting villagers had full right to use the park under police protection.
Gathering again about 100 meters from the park, villagers continued to voice concerns over a wide range of issues, including low salaries, high gasoline prices, forest destruction, and intimidation by authorities.
Chea Bunthoeun, a villager from Kampot province, complained that his community has recently experienced low fishing yields due to the use by foreign fishermen of fishing gear with “better technology.”
He came to take part in the People’s Congress to demand that the government resolve the problem, but has been disappointed by a lack of official response, he said.
Mass rally planned
Cambodia’s opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which claims it was robbed of victory in the July 28 elections, is meanwhile pressing on with its campaign of questioning the legitimacy of Hun Sen’s new government.
Speaking to RFA on Monday, CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha said his party will now push forward with plans for a mass demonstration to run for three days beginning Oct. 23.
“On behalf of the CNRP, I would like to appeal to all freedom-loving people to take part in the mass demonstration,” he said, adding that Cambodian authorities must refrain from violence and protect the people’s right to protest.
Though city authorities have told the CNRP that only a limited number of protesters may take part, and must not march or remain in the park at night, “the CNRP has said there is a possibility that the demonstrators will march,” Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman Long Dymong told RFA.
“The city hall has therefore forwarded their request to the Ministry of Interior,” Long Dymong said.
The CNRP has boycotted Cambodia's parliament since it convened for the first time last month after the July 28 elections in which Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) was declared winner by the government-appointed Election Committee despite claims of vote tampering.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.