At 11:30 a.m. Saturday, municipal security guards and men in plainclothes, wielding steel bars, metal pipes, batons, sticks and axes, forcibly cleared hundreds of demonstrators from Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, where the opposition CNRP has been protesting against the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen for three straight weeks.
Demonstrators, including monks and women, were indiscriminately beaten as they ran away.
The move by the CPP government came one day after its security forces shot dead at least five, and injured more than 20, protesting garment workers, who were armed with stones, sticks and crude Molotov cocktails, during clashes in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the park had to be cleared to restore public order in the capital city, which has been host to daily protests marches and mass demonstrations in recent weeks.
“This is the message of City Hall to [opposition leader] Sam Rainsy that City Hall doesn’t allow him to do this [hold demonstrations],” Mr. Dimanche said.
“We prevent him holding [demonstrations in Freedom Park] because while they only use non-violence in the park, they allow the demonstrators outside the park to use violence and make insecurity for society,” he added.
Mu Sochua, the head of public affairs for the CNRP, decried the actions of police, government-hired security guards and state-sponsored thugs.
“We adamantly condemn the crackdown on Freedom Park—this is democracy square,” Ms. Sochua said.
“Violence on citizens, on monks, on elected representatives…is an act that is unconstitutional and we call on the international community to join us in condemning this type of violence,” she added.
At about 11 a.m. dozens of municipal police armed with tear-gas rifles began gathering at the corners of Freedom Park, while hundreds of military police congregated on the surrounding streets.
Within minutes of the police establishing their presence around the park, about 100 thugs, some wearing dark blue security uniforms and others in plain clothes, rushed into the northwest corner of the park as demonstrators began screaming and running away in fear.
Long Ry, a lawmaker and head of security for the CNRP, stepped onto the main stage, took the microphone and told people to take what belongings they could and get out of the park.
Once the park was cleared, the security guards and thugs, along with municipal police, began tearing down the tents and staging that has been erected in the park over the past three weeks. They also knocked down a Buddhist shrine in the center of the park.
Demonstrators moved to surrounding streets as military police sealed off the entry roads to the park.
At 1 p.m., the men who cleared the park and police continued to tear down structures at the park as three small Chinese-made military helicopters flew overhead.
In heart of the garment factory area in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district, around Veng Sreng Street, where Friday’s violence occurred, hundreds of battlefield troops, particularly from the Brigade 70 unit, were deployed Saturday and were patrolling streets in large military trucks and jeeps mounted with light machine guns.
Residents and garment workers in the area said that thousands of workers have returned to their home provinces for fear of further repression by the forces now deployed in the area. One mini-bus driver said he had taken two van loads of workers to Svay Rieng province Saturday. Passengers said they were fleeing in fear.
City Hall released a statement Saturday morning, signed by Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatvong, saying that CNRP demonstrations and marches would no longer be tolerated by the municipal government.
“Some protesters who come out of Freedom Park, including monks, have done illegal activities and provoked along the streets, factories and other state institution, without control and with no responsibility from the demonstration leaders,” the statement says, citing the country’s laws on peaceful demonstrations.
“Based on this situation…the Phnom Penh municipality has decided not to allow the CNRP to continue demonstrations at Freedom Park or marches along the streets in Phnom Penh starting from January 4, 2014, until security and public order is guaranteed.”
Acting Phnom Penh police chief Mok Chito, who arrived at the park minutes after it was cleared, denied that municipal police has any involvement in clearing the park.
“Our police did not beat up these protesters; we just provided protection around the park. I don’t know what happened inside,” he said.
“From now on, we will not allow them [the CNRP] to gather or hold protests unless the security is guaranteed, and after that the party can request to [hold demonstrations] again,” he added.
Also Saturday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued summonses for CNRP president Sam Rainsy and vice president Kem Sokha to appear in court on January 14 over their role in the demonstrations that turned violent.
The opposition leaders were called to court “for questioning over the case of criminal incitement or committing deeds that caused serious disturbance to society,” according to the summonses issued by municipal deputy prosecutor Heang Sopheak.
Mr. Rainsy told reporters at the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters Sunday morning that he and Mr. Sokha would heed the summons, as they have not been involved in any illegal activities.
“I will go to court on the 14th. I have done nothing wrong, so I am not afraid,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that he did not believe that the opposition leaders would be arrested before they were called to court for questioning.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara, Chhorn Chansy, Phorn Bopha and Kevin Doyle)
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