PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Opposition demonstrators disarmed Cambodian security forces and beat them with batons and flag poles in a confrontation Tuesday that came two weeks before the anniversary of the disputed general election last year that led to a bitter political deadlock.
Officials said at least 40 people were injured, mostly security forces. Police arrested three lawmakers from the political party that led the protest to demand that Phnom Penh's Freedom Park be reopened to the public, and later detained a fourth opposition politician who came to visit them at the police station where they were detained.
Authorities banned public demonstrations and closed the park in January after a spasm of political violence. The opposition claim the election was rigged and the Cambodia National Rescue Party was robbed of victory. Its lawmakers have boycotted their seats in the National Assembly and are demanding reforms and new elections. Efforts to negotiate a compromise have failed, even though both sides said this past April that they were close to an agreement.
With the government steadfast and the opposition frustrated, there are fears that the July 28 anniversary of the polls will see big protests and possible violence. Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for almost three decades, and while Cambodia is formally democratic, his government is authoritarian and known for intimidating opponents.
About 200 protesters had marched to the park and attached an orange banner that read "Free the Freedom Park" to the surrounding razor wire barricade.
As armed police watched from inside the park, several dozen civilian security auxiliaries arrived with batons and homemade weapons and began pulling down the barricade, while attempting to disperse the rally, said Om Sam Ath from the human rights group Licadho. The security forces are often employed by the government to break up protests.
Om Sam Ath said security forces began beating protesters with batons but several protesters, many of whom were waving the national flag, fought back with their flag poles or batons they grabbed from the guards.
Police fired smoke bombs from inside the park to disperse protesters, he said, adding that at least four protesters were injured.
Licadho condemned both sides for using violence.
"That a small and supposedly peaceful event should turn so quickly to violence is extremely troubling," director Naly Pilorge said in the statement. "Licadho deplores the use of violence by any party, urges that a full, fair and transparent investigation take place as soon as possible, and calls for the exercise of restraint by all parties."
City Hall deputy governor Khun Sreng said that 37 of the security auxiliaries were injured.
The rally was led by Mu Sochua, a prominent opposition leader, and two other opposition members, Men Thavrin and Keo Phirum.
All three were arrested after the clashes, said Chuon Narin, deputy chief of Phnom Penh Municipal Police.
"Police did not arrest opposition lawmakers, we detained three anarchist demonstration leaders who led a violent protest," he said.
The three were still being held Tuesday night, said Chan Saveth of the human rights group ADHOC, who said they were joined by a another opposition colleague, Ho Vann, who was detained in the afternoon when he came to visit them. He said the four are expected to be taken to court Wednesday morning to face criminal charges that still have not been specified.