Thousands of opposition supporters gathered in Phnom Penh yesterday, a day after police used force to scatter protesters challenging a disputed election win by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, sparking clashes in which one man was shot dead.
Hun Sen met opposition leader Sam Rainsy for talks and officials said they had agreed to look at how future general elections are held, but Hun Sen refused to give in to demands for an independent inquiry into the July 28 poll.
Prak Sokhonn, a senior official of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), told a briefing the two parties had agreed to respect King Norodom Sihamoni’s call for calm. However, the election had been decided and parliament would open as planned, he said.
“There won’t be a delay... This meeting of parliament will go ahead with or without the participation of the CNRP,” he said, referring to Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party.
The protests present the biggest challenge in years to Hun Sen’s 28-year, iron-fisted rule.
About 10,000 protesters had gathered in Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, a reporter said. Some had defied the authorities by camping there overnight.
Clashes had broken out in several places in Phnom Penh on Sunday, as supporters of the CNRP tried to remove razor-wire barricades and refused to limit their protest to the designated site in Freedom Park.
Chan Soveth, a worker for human rights group Adhoc, said a man was shot in the head and died when CNRP supporters tried to move barricades set up by the authorities in the Kbal Thnal Bridge area near their party headquarters.
He said the man was not a political protester, but one of a group of residents of the area angry that they could not reach their homes.
Chan Soveth said he had visited five other people in hospital who had been shot.
“These bullets came from where the authorities were,” he said.
National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said police had used only teargas, batons and smoke grenades and he could not say how the man died.
“I don’t know how he was killed. We didn’t use live bullets,” he said.
The CNRP said in a statement yesterday it “strongly condemns the violent, brutal act of police who fired guns and beat people who were just travelers who tried to cross the bridge, leaving one dead, many injured and others detained.”
The party has called for peaceful protest and said on Sunday it did not recognize the “small group of opportunists” who had stirred up trouble.
The capital has been tense since the election, but protests have been mostly calm until now and the security forces, prone to cracking down on dissent in the past, have been restrained.
Electoral authorities say Hun Sen’s CPP won the election with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, a much-reduced majority that, even before the protests, signaled dissatisfaction with Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule despite rapid economic growth in a country seen for decades as a basket case.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told reporters after the meeting of the leaders that the protest rally would continue until today as planned and his party would still push for an inquiry into election irregularities before parliament starts next week.
“We still have one more week before Sept. 23,” he said. “We’ll work hard to find a solution acceptable to both sides.”