Hundreds of protesters regathered in Cambodia’s capital on Monday, a day after police used force to disperse thousands challenging a disputed election win by Prime Minister Hun Sen, sparking clashes in which one man was shot dead.
At least 1,000 protesters had defied the authorities by camping out overnight in Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. They were joined on Monday by around 300 garment workers, who arrived by motorbike, witnesses including a human rights worker said.
Hun Sen met opposition leader Sam Rainsy for talks but the premier showed no sign of giving in to calls for an independent inquiry into the July 28 general election, which opponents say was rigged to ensure a continuation of Hun Sen’s 28-year rule.
The protests present the biggest challenge in years to his iron-fisted rule.
Clashes broke out in several places in Phnom Penh on Sunday as supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) tried to remove razor-wire barricades and refused to restrict their protest to a 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 the 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 someone who lived in the area and was among a group of residents 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 told Reuters.
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 on Monday it “strongly condemns the violent, brutal act of police who fired guns and beat people who were just travellers 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 recognise the “small group of opportunists” who had stirred up trouble.
The capital has been tense since the election but protests had mostly been calm and the security forces, prone to cracking down on dissent in the past, had also been restrained.
King Norodom Sihamoni had summoned Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy to a meeting on Saturday morning but it lasted just 30 minutes and apparently produced no results.
The electoral authorities say Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won the election with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, a much-reduced majority that, even before the protests, signalled dissatisfaction with Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule despite rapid economic growth in a country seen for decades as a basket case.
The CNRP says it was cheated out of 2.3 million votes that would have handed it victory.
It was unclear how long the demonstration against Hun Sen would last. Those wrapped in blankets in Freedom Park have said they would stay for at least three days.
“We’re here to protest against the National Election Commission that stole our votes. They should be the referee, not the puppet of the ruling CPP,” said Yong Ol, 43, who had come to the capital by truck from southern Prey Veng province.
The opposition will try to paralyse the legislature by boycotting parliament’s first session on September 23.
Analysts see the standoff as a war of attrition stacked in favour of a premier not known for compromise.
Hun Sen, 61, has been a dominant force in Cambodia for years and has taken credit for steering it away from a chaotic past towards economic growth and development.
But many urban Cambodians born after the 1975-1979 “Killing Fields” rule of the Khmer Rouge see little appeal in his iron-fisted approach and are disillusioned by growing land evictions, labour disputes and graft, as well as Cambodia’s close political ties with top investor China.