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Cambodia launches broad crackdown on opposition

January 4, 2014

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia’s government launched a broad crackdown on the political opposition on Saturday, clearing its main protest site, banning its street demonstrations for the immediate future and having a court call in opposition party leaders for questioning on charges of inciting social unrest.

Police dispersed about 1,000 anti-government demonstrators from a park in the capital, Phnom Penh, a day after four people were killed in a crackdown on a labor protest. Stages and other structures erected by the protesters were demolished.

Hundreds of anti-riot police moved in after warning the protesters to leave Freedom Park, where they had camped since mid-December to demand that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down and call new elections. They claim that July’s general election was rigged and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party robbed of victory.

A warrant issued by prosecutors at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court called for CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to appear for questioning on Jan. 14. A copy of the document was posted on the party’s website on Saturday.

The warrant said the two would be questioned about allegedly inciting people to commit criminal acts and actions that could cause social unrest.

Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia shortly before the election from self-imposed exile after being given a pardon for charges that he said were politically inspired. His return galvanized the opposition, which made an unexpectedly strong showing in the polls even according to the official results it disputes.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party leaders were not worried about the legal moves aimed at them.

“We know that we did not do any wrong,” he said. “The demonstration that our party organized was peaceful and nonviolent.”

On Friday, at least four people were killed when police opened fire to break up a protest by striking garment workers demanding a doubling of the minimum wage. The labor struggle is separate from the election challenge, but unions in Cambodia have long and close ties to the opposition.

The crackdowns indicate a hardening of the government’s response to opposition and labor protests, which have been generally peaceful since the elections.

One measure of the seriousness of the situation was an unusual statement issued by the Defense Ministry after Friday’s violence, affirming the military’s loyalty to the government. The statement said the army would take whatever action was necessary to defend the government, the king and the constitution.

Freedom Park was cleared Saturday after Phnom Penh Gov. Pa Socheatvong sent a letter to Sam Rainsy banning the park’s use this and next weekend. The letter also said marches through Phnom Penh’s streets were banned. It said both bans were due to security reasons, and that they would be lifted once the situation improved.

Major rallies are held at the park on weekends, and the turnout was expected to be larger than usual this time because of anger over Friday’s protest deaths.

While police who cleared the park were not visibly armed, they acted forcefully and were joined by unidentified plainclothes men carrying iron pipes who milled around the area afterward in an effort to discourage the protesters from regrouping.

Lang Rith, a 29-year-old demonstrator from southern Takeo province, said he was hit in the back by a baton as he tried to run away from the park.

Naly Pilorge, director of the local human rights group LICADHO, said in a statement that after Friday’s violence, it was “hoped that the government would begin to exercise restraint, but their actions today show a complete disregard for the rights and indeed the lives of their own citizens.”

The U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, called for an independent investigation into whether excessive force was used Friday. He also expressed concern about increasing violence by some demonstrators.

The standoff over wages presents Hun Sen with a dilemma, as increasing violence could drive the workers into a tighter alliance with the opposition, providing a vast pool of people for their increasingly confident street demonstrations.

But the government is also close to the factory owners, whose exports fuel the economy and who are generally seen as financial supporters of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Update hourly