Cambodia cracks down on protests with ban on assembly

Opposition leaders vow to continue anti-government protests despite threats of reprisals

A security guard chases away Buddhist monks from a camp occupied by anti-government demonstrators in Phnom Penh, Jan. 4, 2014.

The head of Cambodia's opposition party vowed Sunday not to give up anti-government protests despite violent police crackdowns, threats of legal action against him and his colleagues and a ban on public gatherings.

Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy said his party would not be baited by the violence into abandoning nonviolent tactics in its struggle to have Prime Minister Hun Sen resign and call fresh elections. The opposition says elections in July were rigged and cheated them of victory.

The unrest is the biggest challenge in many years to the authoritarian rule of Hun Sen, who has led the country for almost three decades. Protests over the election have been generally peaceful, but a strike by workers in Cambodia's key garment sector has put extra pressure on Hun Sen's government.

Authorities on Saturday banned rallies and street marches in the capital, Phnom Penh, and forcibly cleared about 1,000 anti-government demonstrators from Freedom Park, where they had gathered. Heavily armed police along with men in plainclothes wielding steel pipes chased and beat protesters until they fled.

On Monday, five female protest leaders were arrested in front of the French Embassy as they set up to demonstrate the detention of other human rights defenders, according to human rights group Licadho.

Taken together, activists say these are signs that Hun Sen and hard-liners have taken a harder stance toward his critics.

Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, told the Wall Street Journal that “moderate voices in the ruling party seemed to become more prominent and the government was becoming more accommodative, ceding some political space and allowing large protests. But the violence suggests that hard-liners may be winning the day."

In another example of the government's hard line, at least four people were killed Friday when security forces opened fire with assault rifles 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.

Sam Rainsy spoke Sunday at a Buddhist religious ceremony held at his party's headquarters for the four people killed in Friday's clash. About 1,000 of his supporters attended, and the meeting was uninterrupted by security forces. The party canceled its weekly rally Sunday at Freedom Park, which had been expected to draw larger than normal crowds because of public anger over Friday's shootings.

Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen's party had police employ force during Saturday's sweep at Freedom Park as a trap to have protesters respond in kind and discredit the opposition.

"They hoped that we would resist and refuse to move, then they would use violence, kick us and beat us and hope some of us would be angry, and would respond," he said.

A Phnom Penh city court prosecutor this past week issued a citation requiring Sam Rainsy and CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha to come to court on Jan. 14 for questioning related to accusations of causing social unrest and inciting others to commit serious crimes. The prosecutor's action could lead to criminal charges being filed against them.

Sam Rainsy said he would appear in court, and dismissed the warrant as a political tactic by Hun Sen. Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia from self-imposed exile shortly before July's election, 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.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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