Victims of the violent clashes that broke out between security forces and stone-throwing youths in Phnom Penh on Sunday night recounted the event Monday, with some saying they sustained injuries while battling against riot police and others saying they were simply unfortunate commuters trapped in the middle.
The first day of the opposition CNRP’s three-day demonstration ended late Sunday night with running skirmishes between young demonstrators and armed military and riot police in the area of Monivong Bridge, which left one man dead and several others injured.
Victims of the violence and their family members interviewed at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital on Monday told of a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces at the site.
Oeun Sam Oun, a 26-year-old motorcycle taxi driver who was shot above his left elbow, said from his hospital room that he was trying to deliver rice to his friend in Boeng Trabek commune on his motorbike when he got caught up in the violence, which witnesses said started after police had fired tear gas at youths throwing rocks.
“I was standing in a group watching the tear gas fly around and then I felt a shaking in my arm and I fell to the ground,” he said, explaining that he passed out and had woken up in the hospital.
Mr. Sam Oun said that before he was shot, he had watched efforts by security forces to clear demonstrators, angered by roadblocks that had caused long traffic jams near the bridge, backfire as traffic built up and more and more irritated people entered the fray.
“There were so many people trying to get to the CNRP headquarters [in nearby Chak Angre Loeu commune] but the police had blocked the road,” he said.
“At first, police tried to use force to move people on from the bridge, but that drew more people to the site,” he explained. “It drew more people to the area, and made the police pushed back even harder.”
“The authorities should not have shot at the people because most of them did not know anything about [the demonstration],” he added.
Vou Vann, a 25-year-old man at the hospital, who had a large wound on the back of his head, admitted he was on the front line of fighting with police at the barricades along Monivong Bridge when he was knocked unconscious by an officer.
“Demonstrators were trying to pull the barricades away and the police deployed tear gas. I was behind them to help them, and at that time we were throwing stones at the police,” he said.
“At that time, the police were also shooting their guns a lot into the ground and into the air, and a policeman struck me on the head with his baton because I could not escape in time,” he said.
Mr. Vann added that he was no longer interested in attending opposition demonstrations.
“[Police] shouldn’t have done this, but there’s been enough now. I quit. We cannot win,” he said.
Teav Veasna, 30, the brother of Teav Somnang, 28, who was shot in his lower right leg and was still in surgery at the hospital Monday afternoon to remove the bullet, said his young brother was not involved in the violence.
“He went to join the demonstrations [at Freedom Park], and his job was to provide water to the demonstrators,” he said.
Mr. Veasna explained that he was unsure what exactly his brother had been doing when he was shot, but that he thought the reaction from police to shoot live rounds in order to control the situation had been ruthless and highly disproportionate.
“This was very cruel,” he said. “They used force, but the demonstrators were all empty-handed.”
“They should have opened the barricade. If they had not blocked the road, there would have been no problems,” he added.
Another man, who was still covered in blood and unable to speak clearly enough to identify himself or any family members, lay in a nearby ward with a large wound on the right side of his face.
Nurses said doctors were “unable to do anything” to aid him until family members arrived to help and likely pay for his treatment.
In Wat Chak Angre Krom—about 3 km south of Monivong Bridge along National Road 2—the family of Mao Chan, who was shot dead at the bridge late on Sunday night, gathered to say farewell to the 29-year-old construction worker.
At the funeral, Meanchey district deputy governor By Nay donated 10,000,000 riel, or about $2,500, on behalf of the district and the Phnom Penh Municipality to Mao Sok Chan’s 28-year-old wife, Chiv Sokvy.
“On behalf of authorities…we feel regret for the accident, which we did not want to happen and we did not want to see happen,” she said.
The widow, Ms. Sokvy, said that her husband had neither attended the demonstrations on Sunday nor been involved in opposition politics, and was on his way to keep watch over a roadside newspaper and drinks shop near Monivong Bridge when he was killed.
“He was on a motorbike to station himself at a newspaper site near the bridge, to work as security,” Ms. Sokvy said.
Srey Vichea, 32, a friend of the family, said he was trying to transport Mao Chan to the shop on Sunday when they got caught in the thronged traffic near the base of the bridge at around 9 p.m.
“I left to see if there were any openings in the traffic that I could take the motorbike through,” he said, explaining that Mao Chan had remained sitting alone on the motorbike for him to return.
Mr. Vichea added that he had not seen any military or riot police during his walk, but that when he returned around 10 p.m., his friend was lying on the ground with a gunshot wound above his right eyebrow and was surrounded by a group of people.
“When I left the spot, I only saw two or three traffic police. When I came back, I still only saw two or three traffic police,” he said. “I still wonder where the bullet came from…and there was only a bit of blood.”
“I don’t know what to say. I am beyond upset.”
Ms. Sokvy, who was sent to the site of the clashes on Sunday as the representative of the family, said that when she arrived at the scene demonstrators had blocked her efforts to transport the body to a pagoda for fear of a potential police cover-up.
“The people were saying ‘Let’s take the body to Freedom Park,’ and they drove about 15 motorbikes [in our way] to stop the body going to a pagoda, but the U.N. and NGOs told them to stop,” she said.
The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia on Monday released a statement confirming they had “defuse[d] the tension” and helped transport the body to a hospital.
At a press conference held at the National Assembly on Monday, Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon said that the Ministry of Interior would investigate the death of Mao Chan.
“We don’t know whether this person was a demonstrator or not, but we will conduct an investigation to find the truth,” Mr. Sokhon said.
The Permanent Command for Election Security, a body headed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng, released a statement Monday, placing all responsibility for the clashes on the CNRP.
“There was a group of opportunists who caused insecurity, disorder and…extreme anarchy leading to the existence of clashes with the competent forces,” the statement says, adding that the opposition had not stuck to an agreement with Phnom Penh City Hall to keep its demonstration in Freedom Park.
“The CNRP shall be responsible for the events that occurred,” it adds.
The body released a second statement later in the day that says it was demonstrators, and not police officers firing their guns who had caused the death of the young man.
“During the incident, the competent authorities repeatedly requested the opportunists to cease the disorder,” it says. “The opportunists stubbornly refused and even responded with violence, creating clashes, causing the loss of life of a civilian and injury to several of the competent authorities.”
King Norodom Sihamoni released a statement Monday, offering his condolences to the families of the dead and injured victims of the clashes, and appealed for demonstrators to stick to nonviolent means.
“I insistently appeal for all compatriots who are demonstrators, and the competent authorities, to stop all kinds of rock-throwing that causes compatriots to get injured or lose life,” the King said in the letter.
The CNRP also released a statement, focusing instead on the violence committed by authorities at the site around Monivong Bridge on Sunday, calling for the killer of Mao Chan to be investigated and “prosecut[ed] in accordance with existing laws.”
“The CNRP critically regrets the brutal activities used by armed authorities on innocent people—that is a violent act, and is in critical contempt for people’s lives,” the statement says.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren and Hul Reaksmey)
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