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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Riot police in Cambodia’s capital fired smoke grenades and water cannons at rock-throwing opposition supporters today, as a new wave of demonstrations against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government kicked off with a vow to protest until the nation’s post-election deadlock is resolved.
At least one policeman was injured in the violence. Most of Phnom Penh was calm, however, after around 20,000 protesters gathered at a city park earlier in the day to keep up their push for an independent investigation of results from the July election.
The opposition says the ballot was marred by irregularities that robbed it of winning a majority of seats in parliament, allegations the ruling party denies.
Although the city government allowed today’s rally to go ahead at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, authorities warned protesters to stay off the streets. Thousands of people marched across various parts of the city anyway, and police appeared to be under orders not to intervene.
At one spot along a river in eastern Phnom Penh, around 200 demonstrators gathered on one side of a barricade of barbed wire and roadblocks that had been erected to keep them away from the Royal Palace.
When the protesters refused to disperse and began jeering, police fired water cannons and then smoke grenades, prompting demonstrators to riposte with rocks, shoes and other objects. One policeman was hit in the head with a piece of iron.
Shortly after, opposition leader Sam Rainsy paid a visit to the scene and condemned the violence. He urged the crowd — which had by then swelled to nearly 1,000 people — to stay calm and return to the main protest site at Freedom Park.
The mass rally came one day after Cambodia’s king brought Hun Sen face to face with Sam Rainsy for the first time in years, urging the two rivals to resolve their conflict over the election results peacefully for the sake of national stability. No agreement was reached, but the two are expected to meet again Monday.
Political analysts say the weekend protest is mostly aimed at appeasing angry supporters and strengthening the opposition’s hand in negotiations with Hun Sen. Although demonstrators are pushing for an independent investigation of the election results, the government has no legal means of meeting the request now that the results have been ratified.
“Their ballots were stolen and they are asking for justice,” Sam Rainsy said of his supporters in a speech at today’s rally.
He said the protest, initially planned for three days, would continue until the opposition’s demands for justice are met.
Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party set up tents and brought in food supplies, intent on defying a government order to disperse by nightfall. Authorities, however, seemed to be going out of their way to avoid violence. Police Lt. Gen. Choun Sovann said demonstrators would be allowed to stay overnight at the park and that police would not intervene.
Fears of violence have risen amid a visible increase of military forces in the capital since the election and the discovery Friday of explosives planted by unknown people near Freedom Park.
Official results announced last weekend gave Hun Sen’s party 68 seats in the National Assembly and Sam Rainsy’s party 55 — a dramatic opposition increase from the 29 seats it won in the previous election.
On Saturday, King Norodom Sihamoni also urged lawmakers from both parties to attend the opening session of parliament Sept. 23. The opposition has said it would boycott the session, and Sam Rainsy repeated that promise today.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said talks between the rivals this week could have focused on allotting the opposition several parliamentary leadership positions, reforming the electoral commission and allowing Sam Rainsy to take a seat in parliament.
Just before July’s disputed vote, the king pardoned the then-self-exiled Sam Rainsy at the request of Hun Sen — likely under international pressure. He returned to Cambodia before the election, but too late to register as a candidate himself.