PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s opposition leaders have been summoned to court on suspicion of inciting civil unrest, their party said, after the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen moved to suppress growing street protests.
Police have indefinitely banned further rallies, including one which had been planned for Sunday, after several demonstrators were shot dead on Friday.
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Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha have been summoned to Phnom Penh Municipal Court on January 14 for questioning “in the case of incitement to commit criminal offences or serious social unrest”, according to warrants posted on the opposition website late Saturday.
Rainsy told reporters they were ready to defend themselves at the hearing.
“We have done nothing wrong. On the contrary, it will be an opportunity for us to help expose the truth,” he said.
The opposition party has boycotted parliament since the July election, alleging that Hun Sen was returned to power because of widespread vote-rigging.
The 61-year-old prime minister has ruled for 28 years and vowed to continue until he is 74.
He has faced mounting criticism over his rights record as well as accusations of excessive force against demonstrators.
On Friday police opened fire on striking garment factory employees demanding a minimum wage of $160 per month for their work in an industry which supplies brands like Gap, Nike and H&M.
Rights activists said at least four civilians were shot dead in what they described as the country’s worst state violence against its citizens in 15 years.
A day later dozens of security personnel armed with shields and batons chased hundreds of protesters – including monks, women and children – from their rally base in a park in the capital, according to activists.
Police and civilian thugs “used metre-long steel poles to beat and intimidate the peaceful protesters” before tearing down the rally site, according to the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights.
Freedom Park, also known as Democracy Park, was opened by the government in 2010 as a designated area for people to air their grievances, and protesters had occupied the site since last month as part of demonstrations against the contested election.
An estimated 20,000 or more opposition supporters took to the streets of the capital a week ago to demand Hun Sen step down.
Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) realises that it faces an “unprecedented threat” from a growing alliance between the factory workers and the opposition, Rainsy said.
“This is a matter of survival for the CPP,” he added.
Rainsy returned from self-exile in July after a royal pardon for convictions he denounced as politically motivated, but he was barred from running in the election the same month.
He declined to reveal what the opposition’s next move would be following the crackdown.
But he said it would seek to draw on the strength of its growing support from factory workers.
“When the workers go back to their village they convince their family to support the opposition.”
Disputes over wages and safety conditions are common in Cambodia’s multi-billion dollar garment industry, which has brought buoyant economic growth to what is still one of Asia’s poorest countries.
The sector employs about 650,000 people and is a key source of foreign income.