PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Thousands of opposition supporters gathered in Cambodia’s capital on Monday, a day after police used force to scatter protesters challenging a disputed election win by Prime Minister Hun Sen, sparking clashes in which one man was shot dead.
Hun Sen met opposition leader Sam Rainsy for talks and officials said they had agreed to look at how future general elections are held but the long-serving premier refused to give in to demands for an independent inquiry into the July 28 poll.
Prak Sokhonn, a senior official of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), told a briefing the two parties had agreed to respect King Norodom Sihamoni’s call for calm. But the election had been decided and parliament would open as planned, he said.
“There won’t be a delay ... This meeting of parliament will go ahead with or without the participation of the CNRP,” he said, referring to Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party.
The protests present the biggest challenge in years to Hun Sen’s 28-year, iron-fisted rule.
Around 10,000 protesters had gathered in Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, a Reuters reporter said. Some had defied the authorities by camping there overnight.
Clashes had broken out in several places in Phnom Penh on Sunday as supporters of the CNRP tried to remove razor-wire barricades and refused to limit their protest to the 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 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 one of a group of residents of the area 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 travelers 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 recognize the “small group of opportunists” who had stirred up trouble.
The capital has been tense since the election but protests have been mostly calm until now and the security forces, prone to cracking down on dissent in the past, have been restrained.
Electoral authorities say Hun Sen’s CPP won the election with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, a much-reduced majority that, even before the protests, signaled dissatisfaction with Hun Sen’s authoritarian rule despite rapid economic growth in a country seen for decades as a basket case.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told reporters after the meeting of the leaders that the protest rally would continue until Tuesday as planned and his party would still push for an inquiry into election irregularities before parliament starts next week.
“We still have one more week before September 23,” he said. “We’ll work hard to find a solution acceptable to both sides.”
The CNRP says it was cheated out of 2.3 million votes that would have handed it victory. It has said it would try to paralyze the legislature by boycotting the session on September 23.
Analysts see the standoff as a war of attrition stacked in favor 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, labor disputes and graft, as well as Cambodia’s close political ties with top investor China.
Writing by Alan Raybould; Editing by Michael Perry and Paul Tait