Cambodian police thwart opposition rally over TV license

PHNOM PENH Mon Mar 31, 2014 5:06am EDT

1 of 2. Protesters clash with police officers during a demonstration in central Phnom Penh March 31, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Samrang Pring

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PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian police used batons to break up a protest on Monday by opposition party supporters demanding a license be granted for a new television channel, clashes that rights groups said left two people wounded.

The demonstration by about 100 people was the latest to turn violent in Cambodia, where the ruling party of long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen is facing an unprecedented slew of challenges over issues from factory wages and land grabs to graft and alleged vote-rigging in an election last year.

Police and guards working for Phnom Penh city authorities beat protesters with batons, local rights groups Licadho and Adhoc said.

It was the second time in two months the opposition had gathered to urge the Information Ministry to approve the new channel, which is being spearheaded by popular radio personality Mam Sonando, a government critic.

"Authorities implemented the law to prevent anarchy. This rally was illegal," Long Dimanche, a spokesman for the city authorities, said of the dispersal. He said a protester was detained for incitement.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) says the country's fast-growing broadcast media are under the control of its adversaries in the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), whom they accuse of fixing last year's election to retain power.

The CNRP has won support from unions representing 350,000 disgruntled garment factory workers since late last year to hold strikes over pay and attend anti-government rallies, some of the biggest the country has ever seen.

The strikes and protests have often ended in violence, the worst on January 3, when five textiles workers were killed when security forces fired live ammunition outside a factory.

The use of force and bans on gatherings has had a chilling impact. CNRP leader Sam Rainsy had planned a rally on Sunday of 5,000 people at a Phnom Penh park, but the venue was changed at the last minute and only a few hundred showed up after the authorities vowed to break up the protest.

Recently, 18 unions postponed a week-long strike until April 17. Some union leaders face court action over their roles in the unrest, or allegations of graft.

"The rights to peaceful assembly is the target of the crackdown by authorities," said Chan Soveth, a human rights worker at Adhoc. "People have become hesitant to participate in rallies."

A government-appointed committee assigned to investigate the strikes said in a report the textile industry had been hit with over $72 million of losses in 95 factories. It blamed the CNRP and the aligned trade unions.

(Editing by Martin Petty and Ron Popeski)

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