Phnom Penh (AFP) - Cambodian police broke up a rally in the capital Tuesday and briefly detained 11 activists who were calling for international assistance to secure the release of protesters arrested in a recent crackdown.
The detentions came as the country's main opposition party called off a planned gathering near Phnom Penh due to security fears.
Strongman premier Hun Sen faces mounting criticism by rights groups of his government's suppression of street protests intended to challenge his nearly three-decade rule.
Several prominent campaigners, including a union leader, were among those detained as they tried to petition Western embassies for help in the case of 23 protesters arrested during a deadly crackdown on striking garment workers earlier this month, activists said.
The 11 activists were released several hours later after putting their thumbprints on police documents promising not to hold "illegal demonstrations" in the future, said Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions.
"We are not deterred by this. We will increase our activities 100-fold," he added.
Union members were scheduled Wednesday to march through the capital to mark the 10th anniversary of the death of a prominent trade union leader.
Those detained also included land activists Tep Vanny and Yorm Bopha, who were among five people temporarily arrested earlier this month for a similar protest attempt.
Chan Soveth, a campaigner with local rights group Adhoc, said Cambodia was sliding back towards "an absolute communist state".
Earlier this month police opened fire on garment factory employees demanding a minimum wage of $160 per month for their work in an industry which supplies brands including Gap, Nike and H&M, killing at least four civilians.
The 23 people detained in connection with the unrest are being held at a prison near the border with Vietnam on charges linked to the incident, according to local rights activists.
The government says the recent rallies were illegal and has indefinitely banned opposition demonstrations in the capital.
Phnom Penh City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the 11 activists were detained for education on laws because they had no permission to stage a protest.
"Our authorities cannot allow them to carry out anarchic activities," he told AFP.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights condemned the temporary arrests, saying it was "a new tactic" by the government to silence the population.
"It seems Cambodia is now in a de facto unlawful state of emergency," said Ou Virak, the center's president.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party said its leader Sam Rainsy and his deputy Kem Sokha had cancelled a planned rally on Tuesday. It said hundreds of government-linked agitators were at the site in an "attempt to cause violence".
Hun Sen has faced accusations by rights groups of excessive force against the garment workers as well as against opposition demonstrators who allege vote-rigging in elections last July.
The main opposition party has boycotted parliament since the polls but 61-year-old Hun Sen, who has vowed to stay in power until he is 74, has refused to step down or call a new election.