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Travel

Totalitarian Tourism in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

My girlfriend and I recently returned from a vacation in Cambodia, where tourism has been growing ever since the country enjoyed its only ever UN-sanctioned elections in 1993. During our time there, all hell broke loose.

by Jaimie Hodgson
Apr 9 2014, 5:00pm

From a tuk-tuk, we see trails of military police going into action on January 3, just before the alleged unlawful assassinations.

My girlfriend and I recently returned from a vacation in Cambodia, where tourism has been growing since the country enjoyed its only ever UN-sanctioned elections in 1993. Now, enough stability has been created for hordes of bucket-list backpackers and Xanaxed-up boat-partiers to be herded through the ancient temples at Siem Reap, or sent out of their minds at beach parties in Sihanoukville, or sold the cigarette lighters of dead soldiers at the gift shop near Phnom Penh’s killing fields.

During our time there, all hell broke loose. As VICE reported, peaceful protests in Phnom Penh by garment factory workers turned into a bloodbath in January when military police opened fire on crowds with AK-47s, killing five and injuring many more. A day later, Prime Minister Hun Sen, a remnant of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime, passed an emergency law banning all forms of public demonstration. With continued protest coming from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), many claim there's a new anti-authoritarian fervor growing in the country, with people hoping to overturn Hun Sen's dictatorship and finally banish the legacy of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship.

Pulling up outside CNRP headquarters

With that in mind, I decided to track down some of the CNRP’s key figures to try to make sense of what’s going on in Cambodia. First stop was the CNRP HQ, which at first glance looks a bit like a bathroom showroom you might visit off an A-road somewhere. We checked in with the interns who coordinate the diary of legendary Cambodian female MP Mu Sochua, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and general all-round good egg.

Mu Sochua and her CNRP workers dish out cash to those injured at the garments worker strikes.

After waiting around for a couple of hours, we were told to make our way to the “Russian hospital,” where Sochua was visiting opposition supporters who had been injured in the garment factory protests. It turned out that this involved Sochua wandering around the wards dishing out thin wads of dollars to a varied selection of patients. The cash-in-hand transactions were a bit of a surprise at first. When I mentioned that to her, she explained that, "In this country, it is sometimes the only way to make sure that the people you want to have the money actually get it."

Emotions were running pretty high. At one point, a middle-aged woman broke down at a visibly embarrassed Sochua's feet outside one of the wards, weeping and hugging her ankles until she had to awkwardly sidestep free. Reaching for a note from one of her male comrades, Sochua said she knew the woman from the nonviolent demos held in the city's Freedom Park in the weeks before the garment worker strikes, when shit had really hit the fan.

As we moved on, the conversation returned to Freedom Park—the symbolic site of free speech that has become an epicenter for the snowballing protest movement in recent months. Sochua warned us not to do anything too conspicuous in Cambodia, or we'd be "clamped down." When I asked her to be our guide she laughed at the idea, saying she didn't stand a chance of being let near the site right now. But two of her younger male interns dutifully offered to moped us across to the now desolate stone expanse.

Freedom Park was pretty odd. With a single makeshift police barrack in one corner, the rest of the large plaza was imposingly vacant, barring a game of volleyball being played by a motley crew of men and boys. Our drivers insisted the game was somehow a government-organized ruse, an attempt to show a positive activity taking place in what had become a bleak and abandoned space due to the CPP's protest ban. They said that most of the men present were in cahoots with the police and on watch for any trouble. Who knows if that’s true. To me, it looked more like they were just playing volleyball. But the fact that something like this is questioned is pretty indicative of the atmosphere in Phnom Penh right now.

After Freedom Park, we headed for a drink at the Foreign Correspondents' Club bar. After she got caught up in traffic, we were rejoined by Mu Sochua, who arrived in a taxi, un-chaperoned—which was kind of surprising, given the many well-documented assassination attempts on the lives of her colleagues.

Across a dimly lit table in the upstairs bar, we discussed the many, and often confusing, tiers of Cambodian police hierarchy over a lemonade. "You have the bodyguards of the prime minister, and they are in their thousands—Battalion 70. Then you have Brigade 911—the paratroopers. Then you have the military police; among the military police you have many kinds many of police groups. Then, below that, you have what you would call the civilian police. They are civilians, but they stand with the police. Some are maybe police-trained to some degree; some are just thugs organized by the police and the CPP.”

Then she moved on to the controversial “Blackheads,” basically a government-backed militia of vandals, so-called because they tend to wear helmets. “They are used to suppress, but also to make peaceful protests appear more violent, to stir things up to justify a police clampdown. Many protests crowds are mostly women and monks, meditating. It gets late in the day and all is fine and quiet; then gangs arrive with marbles and start shooting women and monks. Then, moments later, the police appear."

A policeman at Freedom Park takes the weight off his feet

Sochua wasn’t in any doubt about how the CCP recruits its crowbar wielding badmen. "They are paid. I’m sure they are paid. It is totally a given. The government doesn't admit it, but there's no way they can deny it, so they just ignore them. Say nothing. These thugs are also often young drug addicts recruited by the CPP from rehab centers.

"Then there is another group known as 'the Pagoda Boys.' These guys live in these pagodas, and when they are called out to crack down on us, they know exactly what to do, whom to get orders from, and they go straight in. If it's monks involved in the protests, they just hit the monk; they'll kill the monk, and they don’t care. And with those robes, it's hard to run, y'know?”

When I Skyped with Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, from an Australian-themed cocktail bar on a day trip to Sihanoukville, he agreed that the hired thugs were an integral part of the CPP’s state apparatus. "It's a very scary and ingrained element of how they police," he said, recounting horror stories from protests in the late 90s, part of his ten years as a UN worker in Cambodia.

Sochua reckoned that the CPP’s thuggery has roots that go deeper tahn the 90s. “This mentality comes directly from the Khmer Rouge and its way of rule, training different unofficial groups and playing them off against the public,” she said. “They'll use children to spy on their parents, to kill their own parents. You have to remember Hun Sen himself is former Khmer Rouge, and that mentality and way of ruling still runs throughout the CPP and what they do. Has he changed? He has not changed.”

For people like Sochua, the task is to somehow move Cambodia on from its murderous past and totalitarian present.