Southeast Asia Globe journalist Daniel Otis recounts Sunday night’s violence
By Daniel Otis
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Last night, death capped the first of three days of demonstrations planned by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to contest the country’s August election results. Barring an incident earlier in the day involving water cannons and smoke grenades, demonstrations were largely peaceful, albeit tense.
Several hours after opposition leader Sam Rainsy concluded the day’s events in the capital’s Freedom Park, a throng of commuters in the southeastern end of the city became engaged in a standoff with authorities, angry that they were not being allowed to cross Monivong Bridge and return home. At about 8pm, the crowd – who, strictly speaking, were not CNRP demonstrators – began tearing down the barbed wire barricades leading to the bridge. Riot police responded first with smoke grenades, then by firing live ammunition into the air. Some reports mention the use of tear gas, but these remain unconfirmed.
The clashes quickly became politicised, with angry groups of demonstrators hurling rocks and hunks of concrete at authorities.
By the time I arrived at 9pm, the bridge had been completely cordoned off. Battered demonstrators were being led into the nearby General Commissariat of National Police building while UN observers in sky blue vests tried to intervene.
As I watched, authorities began grouping under the bridge. Led by an elite unit clad in black body armour, authorities hurriedly crossed the bridge and began pursuing a group of demonstrators taking shelter near the ramshackle Char Ampov market. Cattle prods and electrified riot shields crackled in the light drizzle.
From less than 50 metres away, I witnessed the thump and flash of smoke grenades, followed by the clatter of automatic rifle fire. When the demonstrators dispersed, screaming under the barrage, they were pursued through the narrow alleyways surrounding the market.
Authorities eventually pulled back, chased by half a dozen young men brazenly shouting obscenities and hurling hunks of concrete. The latter were ignored by the mass of soldiers and police, some solemn, others jovial as they again regrouped under the bridge.
Shortly after the clash, locals implored me to document evidence of the violence near Char Ampov: spent casings from pistols, shotguns and assault rifles littering the ground, plastic gas canisters on the bridge, pools of blood in the alleyways and hunks of cement in the roads. One bystander lifted his shirt to reveal bruises that he said were caused by rubber bullets.
At least six people were injured in the clashes, with one reportedly suffering a bullet wound to the neck.
“Some of the soldiers shot down, some shot up, and some shot right at us,” a demonstrator at the scene said. This same witness claimed that the soldiers were speaking Vietnamese.
Before I had arrived, one person – later identified as 29-year-old Mao Chan – was killed. His body lay in the streets west of the bridge for hours afterwards, hands folded neatly above his chest, clutching a bundle of incense, bleeding from his ears, a basket of donations resting next to him, a neat bullet wound oozing from his forehead. With an angry mob of locals refusing to allow his body to be removed from the scene, military police yet again fired into the air. At about 12:45am, the crowd finally allowed Mao Chan’s body to be taken by a UN vehicle.
“They were shooting to kill,” a young man, visibly shaken, said. “It’s like we’re back in the time of Pol Pot.”
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