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Candlelight Party starts first protest in years, but police quickly shut them down

About 100 activists with the main opposition Candlelight Party started a protest on Friday in Phnom Penh – their first demonstration in several years – but police quickly confronted and dispersed them, claiming they were causing a traffic jam.

The activists gathered in front of the party’s headquarters to demand the release of recently arrested party officials.

The city had refused to give them permission to protest at Freedom Park, the location of previous rallies against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, the party’s Youth Movement President Thorn Chantha said.

Party organizers have faced threats and harassment as they prepare for July’s parliamentary elections. Party Vice President Thach Setha, for example, was arrested in January on charges of writing false checks. Her lawyers filed another request for bail earlier this week.

“We also would like the political space to be opened ahead of the election to show the international and national community is acceptable,” said Thorn Chantha. “There should be fair competition. While other parties have the right to do everything, the Candlelight Party is being restricted.”

Separately, Thorn Chantha said he was assaulted on Thursday by two unknown people after he ordered coffee. He said he was struck with a baton on his shoulder. The assailants then followed him as he was fleeing in his car and smashed his driver’s window with a rock, he said.

“This violence is to intimidate opposition party activists who dare to conduct political activities ahead of the election,” Thorn Chantha said.  

‘People understand their rights’

Police from the city’s Sen Sok district pushed the protesters away from the party’s headquarters, and activists eventually agreed to move off the street and into the party’s headquarters, said Rong Chhun, a labor leader who recently became the party’s vice president.

“We were protesting on the pavement, but the traffic was flowing. The accusation is unjustified,” he said. “This shows that they restrict freedom of speech and assembly.”

There was no violence between police and protesters, he said. District officials invited him to a meeting on Monday to discuss the demonstration, which he told Radio Free Asia he would attend. But he urged NGOs and diplomats to monitor what takes place. 

“This was yet another image of repression to scare the youths and to scare people into not expressing themselves,” he said. “But people understand their rights and the law now. The more they scare us, the more people will join us.”

Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.

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