PHNOM PENH (Khmer Times) – Authorities started Tuesday to investigate the flare up of violence at the protest at the Poipet border crossing with Thailand.
In the protest, over higher customs duties, handcart pullers briefly blocked the busy crossing on Monday, setting fires, and breaking windows. Finally military police broke up the protest by firing shots in the air. One protester ended up in the hospital after a fist fight broke out with police.
The General Department of Customs and Excise charged Tuesday that this is not the first time people have manipulated porters to serve their own purposes.
“A joint commission, including the authorities, a court customs and excise’s official and other relevant parties will investigate the real reason behind the violence,” read a statement by the Customs Department.
Oum Sophal, Poipet police chief, said he is investigating the case, but has not confirmed suspects yet. Poipet City governor Ngor Meng Chroun told Khmer Times by phone that he is unable to conclude that the CNRP is behind the protests.
“It depends on the competence [of the police and the court] to investigate this case,” he said.
But in a report to the governor of Banteay Meanchey province, the Mr. Chroun said Monday that the protest was led by Chao Veasna, a CNRP official from the Sam Rainsy Party and deputy chief of Poipet commune, and Din Puthy, head of Poipet’s IDEA, a labor group primarily composed of tuk-tuk drivers and moto dops.
“I just reported to the provincial governor what and who was involved in the protest,” the City Governor said Tuesday. “I did not accuse them. If they are found to be related to this case, the court will charge them.”
Mr. Chroun said there are about 400 porters in Poipet, but only 13 of them protested Monday. He said: “Other porters worked as normal.”
He stressed that porters do not own the goods they move. Instead, they are hired to transport goods from Thailand to Cambodia by handcart.
“If they are hired to transport goods, please do not ask them to play the role of the owner,” he said. “They do not have any obligation to pay tax.”
In the protest, police fired in the air after protesters destroyed the gate of the customs office and other property.
Phon Chhin, an official from the Licadho human rights chapter in Banteay Meanchey, said the violence started at noon. He said protesters took a handcart to block National Road 5.
“They wanted to negotiate with the head of Poipet customs office — they did not want to meet the vice head of Poipet customs office,” he said.
Police immediately dispersed the protesters and removed the handcart from the road. They beat and then handcuffed one protester, Mao Sun. He was sent him to Poipet’s hospital.
He said protesters gathered again in the evening, believing a rumor that Mr. Sun had died in hospital after police beat him.
“This information provoked protesters so much that they became angry and started to throw stones at the Poipet Customs and Excise Office,” Mr. Chhin said. “The protesters could face jail, because they destroyed state property.”
He added that no one was detained after the evening violence.
He said that Mr. Veasna, the local CNRP official, “just went there to coordinate in the morning.”
As for Mr. Veasna, he said in a morning after interview that he was not involved in Monday’s violence.
“They are my people, so I went there to watch and coordinate,” he said.
He said he supported authorities in taking action on the incident. He asked protesters who heard the rumor that sparked the violence. He said that people told him that “Sun’s wife informed his brother that her husband had died in hospital.”
He said he told the protesters that he would only believe that Mr. Sun died when he saw his dead body. But the protesters did not listen and became angry.
As for Ran Sreymo, Mr. Sun’s wife said that she and her brother did not spread rumors of her husband’s death.
“Many protesters asked me if my husband was dead, but I declined to say if he was okay or otherwise,” she said.
She explained the economic roots of the protest.
“We guarantee our clients that we will import their goods without tax,” she said. “Owners of goods do not want to pay tax. They only want to know that their goods have arrived safely.”
Increasingly, when porters arrive at the border checkpoint, customs officials check their goods and demand they pay tax on them. Porters ask not to be charged tax on loads of less than 30 cases.
Chhuon Hay, the head of Poipet Customs and Excise Office, said because of the congestion of traffic and violence Monday, the customs office lost thousands of dollars in tax receipts.
“If we allow in goods transported by handcarts, it will be unfair on those importing products by car,” he said. “If goods transported by handcart don’t pay tax, then all goods arriving by car will soon be transferred to handcarts to avoid paying tax.”
He said customs officials once found a porter transporting 900 cell phones with a retail value of $150,000.
Fire blocks traffic Monday at the Poipet border crossing with Thailand. KT Photos: Ban Sokrith
The facade and windows of the Poipet Customs and Excise office were damaged.otesters on Monday. KT Photos: Ban Sokrith