Cambodian Security Forces Clash With Protesters

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Cambodian security forces clashed with hundreds of workers and opposition supporters who took to the streets in defiance of a ban on protests in the capital on Sunday, leaving at least 10 people injured.

The skirmishes occurred as military police and riot-control officers tried to stop protesters from entering Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh, the main rallying point for opposition supporters in recent months. The clashes were the first since the government violently cracked down on labor and opposition protests in early January, and fueled concern that Prime Minister Hun Sen is trying to quell growing political unrest by curbing civil liberties.

Led by labor unions and rights groups, protesters had gathered to urge fresh wage talks for garment workers and demand the release of 23 people detained by police during the Jan. 2-4 crackdown. Organizers had sought permission for their demonstration but municipal authorities rejected their request, citing public-order concerns.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Sunday’s clashes started, but rights activists say law-enforcement personnel—equipped with batons and electric prods—used force to keep out protesters, who retaliated by throwing rocks and other objects. At least 10 people were hurt during these clashes, which occurred after 9 a.m. local time, said Am Sam Ath, an investigator with the nonprofit Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or Licadho.

“We regret that the authorities are banning people from gathering and expressing their opinions peacefully,” said  Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions. Even so, the demonstrators hope to put pressure on authorities to consider their demands, he said.

Government and police officials said Sunday’s security operations were meant to preserve public order, and denied trying to suppress civil liberties. 

“We banned the gathering to protect social order. They can do it after the country returns to normalcy,” Phnom Penh deputy police chief  Chuon Narin said.

Officials from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party criticized Sunday’s police action, saying they infringed on citizens’ democratic rights. Union leaders said they would continue protesting despite the ban.

“We want negotiations on increasing wages and the release of the 23 detainees,” said Far Saly, president of National of Trade Unions Coalition.

Unions on Sunday reiterated demands for the garment industry minimum wage to be doubled to $160 a month. The Labor Ministry has so far declined to improve their latest offer of $100 a month, but officials say they plan to meet on Feb. 5 to discuss possible wage increases for civil servants and workers.

Freedom Park, located near the capital’s riverside tourist district, had been the focal point for rallies held by the Rescue Party and groups of garment workers seeking higher wages.

Before this month’s crackdown, tens of thousands of garment workers walked off their jobs, while the Rescue Party had staged a series of protests claiming that it had been robbed of victory at elections last July and demanding that Mr. Hun Sen either call a new vote or resign from his 28-year rule—demands that the premier has rejected.

Security forces started arresting labor protesters on Jan. 2. Clashes turned deadly the next day, when police shot and killed at least four people. Authorities then cleared out a main rallying point in Phnom Penh for supporters of the government opposition and banned protests in the capital indefinitely.

The crackdown quelled the garment strike and halted opposition protests but stunned activists with its heavy-handedness. Political analysts say authorities were likely concerned about labor unions joining forces with a growing opposition movement.

Write to Chun Han Wong at [email protected]