Protesters gather in Phnom Penh, angry at the disputed election results
On the first Saturday of 2014, some monks sat eating lunch in Freedom Park, Phnom Penh, cross-legged in their orange robes. A few devotees hovered around handing out water bottles. Throughout the rest of the park, under the shade of large gazebos, hundreds of protesters from all over the country relaxed. Up on stage, famous singers entertained the crowd. But the festival vibe didn't last for long.
Pretty soon, a thousand or so military police were swarming Freedom Park—rumors that circulated afterwards claimed they were aided by gangs of hired thugs. They kicked and lashed out with batons, smashing everything: the stage, the speakers, and the gazebos. “The police beat the monks even as they were having lunch,” said Sokunthea, a Khmer journalist. “All the people cried and ran away.”
The move came on January 4, the day after five people were killed by military police when a garment factory protest for higher wages turned ugly. During this time, 23 people were arrested. So far they have been denied bail and access to lawyers.
Freedom Park is Phnom Penh’s designated protest space. It’s a long and mostly concreted area with two skyscrapers at one end and the Tonal Sap River at the other. The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been demonstrating here since September. They want a new election after slamming last summer’s poll for “massive irregularities.”
The CNRP saw their ranks swell in December, as the government's promised pay hike for garment factory workers fell short of the demanded $160 per month. This led to thousands of garment workers joining “tsunami marches” through Phnom Penh, the largest of which saw an estimated 131,500 people parade through the city demanding that Prime Minister Hun Sen step down.
“The constitution says each citizen has the right to vote but these rights were ripped off,” said CNRP lawmaker Mu Suchua. The allegation that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) cheated may not surprise too many given they've a history of doing stuff like lobbing grenades at their opponents. What is significant is that they still nearly lost, winning 68 seats to the CNRP's 55.
Men who are alleged to be hired thugs look on at the protest outside Sam Rainsy's court appearance
No sooner had the CPP locked the park down than a court summons was issued for CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, so he went to ground. Many thought he was hiding in the American Embassy, including the military police who shut down all roads leading there. I called the embassy for comment but had the phone slammed down. I guess they were getting a lot of calls from journalists that day.
It is the biggest crisis Hun Sen has faced in 29 years at the top. For a time the Cambodian people were happy to put up with his authoritarian regime in exchange for the stability he brought to their war torn country but that is coming to an end. “I curse Hun Sen, he only cares about rich people. He does nothing to help the poor,” Phnom Penh resident Tom Sup Many told me.
A rally at Freedom Park
While many support the CNRP’s position some doubt their ability to govern Cambodia. Rainsy has promised a pension for old people, a doubling of wages for garment factory workers and the return of stolen land to the original owners. He has so far provided no plans on how he plans to achieve this. “Sam Rainsy’s political tactic has been to promise a puppy for every child,” said Cambodia-based journalist Faine Greenwood.
Then there are those who support the CNRP but are afraid to say so. Official police are often helped by gangs of hired thugs in matching motorbike helmets, faceless goons with a penchant for tasering journalists. A source working for the CNRP told me that they are criminals rounded up by authorities, given weapons and let loose.
It’s easy to have sympathy for the CNRP given that they probably would have won the election if it had been fair, but this isn't a simple goodies versus baddies tale. They have long been stoking anti-Vietnamese sentiment to gain support from the Cambodian people. Hun Sen was put in power by the Vietnamese in 1985 and the opposition claim that he is a stooge for their old enemy. The crude xenophobia boiled over on January 10 when a mob set about three Vietnamese-owned shops. The shops were ransacked and their owners beaten up. “The CNRP use this kind of rhetoric to hit a sensitive feeling in the Cambodian people who still feel the loss of our land to the Vietnamese,” said Phay Siphon, a CPP spokesman.
Sam Rainsy addressing the crowds after his court appearance
Rainsy appeared in court on January 14 to answer questions of “inciting social unrest.” Thousands defied the ban on public assembly to come and show their support. The security thugs were out again ready to break heads but remained peaceful this time. No charges were brought against Rainsy that day and later that afternoon he gave a speech vowing to continue his non-violent campaign for a new election.
The 23 people arrested during violent protests earlier this month have not yet been charged or allowed bail. One of them is Vorn Pao, President of an informal workers union. Last Sunday, a group of people led by Sokchhun Oeung—his deputy—assembled to call for their release. Two trucks of military police screeched to a halt by the gang and arrested Sokchhun Oeung for protesting against the arrest of his union president. Oeung was released this morning.
People here are pissed off. The Phnom Penh rumor mill keeps on turning. Some reports say that both parties are close to brokering a deal to end the impasse. Others say that Rainsy is planning a “final campaign” in March. The garment factory workers went back on strike on Friday, Hun Sen has vowed to stay in power another ten years and the CNRP have vowed to fight on. Whatever happens, Cambodia's well of anger shows no sign of running dry.