By Prak Chan Thul
PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian military police used smoke grenades and batons on Monday to quell a protest by demonstrators demanding that a new television channel be allowed to broadcast, wounding at least eight people, witnesses said.
The demonstration was in breach of a ban on public gatherings imposed by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is enduring one of the biggest challenges to his 28-year rule and mounting criticism of bloody crackdowns on dissent.
Military police and guards working for Phnom Penh city authorities chased down opposition-aligned protesters near the Information Ministry, with police wielding batons and electric prods. Journalists were among the wounded, according to Reuters witnesses.
The protest was against the ministry's refusal to grant a broadcast license to a new television channel run by a staunch government critic in a country where the broadcast media is accused of lacking political independence.
The violence was the latest episode in a months-long political crisis in Cambodia, which was for years racked by conflict but which recently saw more than a decade of unprecedented growth and stability.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has held some of the biggest rallies the country has ever seen as part of its campaign for a re-run of a July election it says it was rigged in favor of Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
CNRP has been joined by unions representing 350,000 garment factory workers who held strikes last year over the government's refusal to meet its demands for higher pay.
Five workers were killed on January 3 when security forces fired live ammunition to quell a protest.
Military police spokesman Kheng Tito said the ongoing crackdown was necessary to ensure public order. The ban on gatherings, he said, would only be lifted when CNRP lawmakers ended their boycott of parliament and worked with the ruling party to resolve the conflict.
"SCARY AND WORRYING"
Police clashed on Sunday with anti-government protesters and garment workers who were demanding the release of 23 people jailed for their involvement in the recent strikes.
"These instances of violence happened one after another and it has now become a very scary and worrying trend," said Chan Soveth, a worker with the Adhoc human right group.
"Without talks between the CPP and CNRP, we're worried violent crackdown will occur in the whole country," Chan Soveth said, adding that some CNRP activities had been disrupted by CPP supporters in several provinces.
The violence comes ahead of a U.N. human rights hearing on Cambodia in Geneva, where CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and human rights groups will seek support from member states to end the deadlock. Hun Sen has refused to resign, allow an independent investigation into the election, or hold another ballot.
"Since the beginning of 2014, respect for human rights in Cambodia - including the treatment of human rights defenders - has worsened significantly to the point of crisis," the Licadho and Amnesty International rights groups said on Sunday.
Yim Sovann, CNRP spokesman, said the party would stick to its demands for a fresh election and electoral reforms.
"The situation has become worse, with crackdowns everywhere," he said. "We don't know how the CPP wants to end this crisis."
(Editing by Martin Petty and Robert Birsel)