PHNOM PENH — Rights groups in Cambodia accused police of using disproportionate violence on Sunday, alleging they beat protesters at a rally by 2,000 garment workers in the capital.
Around 100 officers, armed with anti-riot shields, electric batons and guns, moved in to disperse the mainly female crowd that had formed a roadblock near Phnom Penh's airport, according to a joint statement by three rights groups.
It said the police fired warning shots into the air, deliberately drove motorbikes into the crowd, arrested two female workers and left another eight women in need of hospital treatment for their injuries.
But Phnom Penh police chief Touch Naruth said just one person was arrested, who is still in custody, and that he had seen just "one or two" of the crowd wounded, while nine of the security force were injured.
"The use of violence by police was totally disproportional to the workers' actions," said Am Sam Ath, monitoring supervisor at the LICADHO, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights.
"The government should be supporting unions on the issue of expressive rights, rather than systemically cracking down on every form of rights activism," he said.
The statement was also issued by ADHOC, the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association, and CLEC, the Community Legal Education Center.
The workers' dispute stems from the loss of jobs following a fire at a factory on March 30. The owner offered severance pay of $20 per year worked, which workers felt was insufficient, the statement said.
Sunday's action was intended to temporarily block the road to draw the attention of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was scheduled to return from abroad via the airport, to the workers' situation.
"Ordinary Cambodians have no leverage, no voice and no legal recourse in situations like this. They are simply brushed aside," said Moeun Tola, Head of CLEC's labour programme.
"People are increasingly resorting to acts of desperation. Police violence is not the way to resolve the problem."
Naruth insisted police were "trying to help" the people, but said the crowd did not understand and started to throw rocks. "They cannot block the street on which all VIP people are travelling," he said.
Cambodia has come under fire from activists and observers in recent months for stifling free speech and cracking down on opponents after it introduced laws that increase the risk of arrest for voicing dissent.
In a crackdown last month on a Phnom Penh rally against mass evictions, 11 protesters were detained and others were beaten by baton-wielding police, according to rights groups.