LOOKING FOR TROUBLE
Pro-CPP demonstrators - mostly trucked in from the provinces - roamed the streets of Phnom Penh from Sept 11-13, often engaging in violent confrontations with opposition supporters.
PHNOM PENH turned on a sullen welcome for CPP protesters who descended on the city
last weekend. Shops were closed, bystanders taunted and the occasional rock barrage
was hurled at the demonstrators.
It was a marked contrast to the opposition demonstrations which often had a light-hearted
air; at least until the police crackdown.
Many of the CPP demonstrators were armed with sticks and rocks which made a belligerent
impression. Protest organizers carried ICOM radios. Some wore military trousers and
loose civilian shirts, concealing handguns.
One shop keeper near the demonstration said she and other retailers moved stock back
to their homes when they saw the crowd, fearing it could turn ugly.
This is not to say that the city was united in opposition to the CPP who, after all,
gained a third of Phnom Penh's votes.
The first CPP demonstrators on Friday were, in fact, drawn from squatter strongholds
like Tonle Bassac village. As early as Sept 1, during the heyday of Democracy Square,
village chief Keth Seng Oeum told the Post that he had submitted a request to the
Ministry of Interior to stage a CPP counter-demonstration but was turned down.
On Friday morning, CPP forces were unleashed, sweeping opposition protesters from
the US Embassy with gunshots and club charges. Then 50 truckloads of CPP men gathered
in front of the Royal Palace and the Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana, armed with sticks
Outside the palace, mounted on a motorcycle and monitoring his troops with an ICOM
radio, was Yim Vorin who identified himself as a civil servant from Phnom Penh.
"All my neighbors are here," he said. "Hun Sen won the election and
we are here to support him. Without him, there is no government, no development.
I'm happy to be here. We read newspapers about the protests - not good. The grenades
at Hun Sen's house made people angry too."
At the gateway of the Cambodiana stood Ministry of Defense official Kham Chan Tarong
and Mek Dara, deputy police director of criminal investigation, both in civilian
"The focus of the new demonstrations is the US Embassy and the Cambodiana,"
said Kham Cham Tarong. "The purpose was to give messages to both President Clinton
and the UN's Kofi Annan. The problem is winners and losers. We want to form a government.
They don't want a government. We want peace, development, national reconciliation.
Mek Dara echoed: "People are disturbed at the attempt to make the government
fail. They see the illegal demonstrations and they are angry. Today the people are
supporting the winner of the elections. I support the will of the people."
"They want an end to illegal demonstrations, not to prolong the sit-in at the
park," added Tarong. "I feel sorry for what happened to that park. People
used to come there with their girlfriends. Now the park will be beautified... Asean,
the EU, Japan, France, Friends of Cambodia - all support the results of the election.
This is the will of the voters, not just 10,000, but 11 million."
Saturday was a series of running skirmishes. On Street 63 near Silop Market, for
example, a small group of CPP supporters were beaten by an opposition crowd who confiscated
their sticks and burned them before being dispersed by police.
The day before, several CPP demonstrators whipped out pistols from under their belts
and wildly fired on the opposition, wounding three.
A stick-wielding CPP crowd on Saturday followed a cyclo mounted with a loudspeaker
at Psar Thmei. "We have been patient a long time!" cried the man with the
microphone. "The election winner is hurt when the losers don't accept the results.
Down with those who incite people to hold anarchic demonstrations!"
A middle-aged CPP follower who claimed to be a high school student said: "We
carry sticks to protect ourselves in case there's a fight with the opposition."
A young girl in the rally shouted: "Down with the yuon communists!"
An older woman hushed her. "Be careful what you say! This is not a Sam Rainsy
demonstration. It's Hun Sen's!"
On Saturday night, the pro-CPP masses were trundled out to Olympic Stadium: a fleet
of 160 cars, pickups and l0-wheel trucks from Kandal, Takeo, Kampong Speu, Kampong
Cham. Kramas, cash and food were handed out. Singers and comedians entertained.
In the morning, 8,000 demonstrators, almost all men, formed up before the speaker's
platform. The bleachers behind were empty. An occasional line received applause -
"Human rights groups should stop interfering in our internal affairs!"
- but the chaiyos were mostly perfunctory. As speeches droned on, the crowd dwindled
to 500 sitters. The rest returned to their trucks, tearing into a free breakfast
of bread and sardines.
A pro-CPP demonstration organizer shoots at an opposition rally Sept 11 on Street 63 near the US Embassy. Three opposition supporters were shot and wounded during the clash.
Speeches that morning - and throughout the day via mobile loudspeakers - were strictly
choreographed, sticking to a party script. Sam Rainsy was accused of being a war-mongerer,
a destroyer of the economy, a labor troublemaker, a felon, the son of a traitor,
a manipulator who disguised his bodyguards and Khmer Rouge hard-liners as Buddhist
monks. Similarly Prince Ranariddh was given some advice, namely he must accept the
results of the election, stop illegal demonstrations, cease disguising his bodyguards
as Buddhist monks, take responsibility for the crimes of resistance general Khan
Savoeun and attend the National Assembly opening on Sept 24. "All of us have
to respect democracy in Cambodia," concluded both.
As the trucks rumbled out of Olympic Stadium, market vendors closed their shops.
"We're afraid," said one woman.
"If they were Sam Rainsy demonstrators, I wouldn't be afraid," added another.
"But these people are sent by Hun Sen and they could be robbers."
Some marchers waved CPP flags tied to truncheons. "The foundation of the CPP
is solid!" declared one burly marcher, whacking his club into his palm.
Sporadic looting broke out at the early stages of the convoy's route, as CPP supporters
clambered off the trucks to respond to taunts. For the most part, Sihanouk Boulevard
was cleared of traffic and patrolled by police bearing AK-47s as the convoy slowly
proceeded down to Independence Monument.
As the convoy crept past the Cambodiana, orators using loud speakers taunted Sam
Rainsy, holed up inside, as a traitor.
Hand-lettered signs read: "We strongly support the results of the Election July
26, 1998" and "We want peace and development." Truckloads were divided
by village: men in one wearing red kramas, another purple, another white caps.
A teenager from Takeo eating noodles on grass outside the Cambodiana said: "I
came here for the meeting in the stadium to support the election results and to call
for all parties to participate in the National Assembly. I didn't expect to be walking
around with sticks and stones. But if [the opposition] has the right to beat us,
we have the right to beat them back. We are not cows to let them beat us whenever
The convoy came to rest at lunch time. CPP supporters stretched out in whatever shade
they could find from the Cambodiana all along the riverside to Royal Palace and the
park fronting the National Museum.
Here a slingshot sniper fired marble rounds into the crowd from the roof of a nearby
building. The crowd reacted with rage, brandishing sticks and hurling stones at the
offending building. A line of village chiefs and police confined the growing mob
to the opposite sidewalk, frantically signaling for peace. Eventually everyone settled
down to styrofoam box lunches.
The CPP convoy pulled out at 2:15pm. As they cruised up Pochentong Road past the
train station, taunts from a corner noodle shop caused one truckload to empty out
on to the street. A shop stall was smashed and its owner bloodied before police intervened.
Apart from incidents like this, the CPP loyalists stayed where they were - crammed
on back of the trucks - or walked in well-formed, straight lines as demanded by the
Emboldened after their departure, some 5,000 opposition demonstrators formed up on
Norodom Boulevard, only to be dispersed by police firing rounds over their heads.
A pro-opposition moto procession nonetheless gathered and wound its way through the
city, picking up supporters along the way. By the time in reached the riverside near
dusk, it had swelled to perhaps 15,000.
General Chhin Chan Pour, deputy chief of the Military Police, said in a telephone
interview that his mission was to provide for the safety of CPP demonstrators and
to prevent conflicts between them and the opposition.
But why could the police not provide similar security to opposition demonstrators?
"You cannot call such mobs a political demonstration because they have no idea
what their demands are," he replied.
However he said the CPP deserved protection because the were well organized and knew
what they wanted.
"The military is neutral. We have to protect well-organized demonstrations,
even if they are illegal," he said.
One moto driver summed up his feelings as he watched Sunday's CPP rally saying: "Hun
Sen a good man. But Sam Rainsy, Prince Ranariddh, they good too." Then he strained
his English further to express a better-the-devil-you-know sentiment: "If no
have Hun Sen, I don't know. If I have Hun Sen, I know."