The hush that fell over Freedom Park late on Sunday night – a result of thousands of opposition supporters settling down to sleep after their first day of mass demonstrations – was interrupted by news that police had allegedly killed a man on a Phnom Penh bridge.
Accounts of the bloodshed came via text messages and by phone, or by way of passing motorists who had heard or seen something and felt compelled to share it with those who rapidly awakened.
In one case, a man on a moto pulled up under the flickering street lights on the park’s west side and delivered details of what had happened to a small group of protesters. A chorus of raised voices could be heard in the darkness as tensions flared and panic set in.
But to the credit of those who camped in Freedom Park on the first night of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s sit-in, the event remained free from violence.
Even as protest organisers rushed to barricade streets surrounding the park, and rumours abounded that protesters would be violently evicted, sprayed with water cannons or terrorised by gangs of hired thugs, protesters remained calm.
“We regret that someone has died,” CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann said after learning of the violence. “But we must stay in Freedom Park. We will remain peaceful.”
His words, delivered during a small press conference to reporters, inspired supporters that had gathered around him to cheer in solidarity.
After a full day of protesting against the results of the July 28 election, most of an estimated 20,000 opposition demonstrators had dispersed by 7pm, leaving only those who had journeyed from the provinces.
“I’ve never even joined a rally before,” said Hem Hoy, 70, a man from Prey Veng province who sold his chickens to travel to Phnom Penh to protest. “Previously, election results weren’t that important to me – I’d just hear the results.”
Facebook has been credited as a tool that helped the CNRP win the youth vote, but it was the party’s seven-point policy plan – which included promises of pensions for the elderly – that secured the votes of Hoy and a fellow protester, also 70.
“So when the NEC read out its results, I was really disappointed and needed to come here,” he said.
Hoy and his friend, from the same village, vowed to stay in Freedom Park for as long as it took for the CNRP to be awarded victory.
Sharing this sentiment was a 54-year-old woman, one of a group of nine ethnic Kuy villagers who had travelled from Preah Vihear province.
“We sold honey, herbs and oil from trees to join this peaceful demonstration,” said the woman, who did not give her name. “We demand peace, and we want change. The CNRP can end land grabbing and the clearing of our forests and protect our identity and culture.”
Like many others, the woman’s group had nowhere else in Phnom Penh to go when the day’s events had ended, and vowed to stay put until they received the result they sought.
To accommodate the crowd, thousands of bottles of water were handed out. Protesters were also given food, and a well-staffed medical tent was kept busy.
Chan Savorn, who was in charge of that medical tent, said two people were sent to hospital on the first day, while a total of nine people fainted.
“Most people are just coming here, taking some medicine and continuing to protest,” he said.
Chan Bun Hon, a Cambodian-American who was helping out near the medical tent, said organisers had not provided enough toilets.
“Should people go and do their thing in front of the big hotels or in front of the [US] embassy?” he said. “They said there would be more, but where are they?”
The CNRP had told Phnom Penh residents to go home by 7pm, but some settled in for the night anyway.
Under long and open tents, families unrolled mats, shared food and exchanged banter as rain fell outside. When the skies cleared, small pockets of youths attracted onlookers as they danced to beating drums.
Even before hearing of the violence, some protesters were concerned they would be violently evicted. But when CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha returned to the park unannounced, those fears were doused.
“I don’t think they will do anything here tonight,” said lawmaker Yim Sovann as Sokha traversed the crowd to a hero’s reception. “We’re staying here and calling again for supporters not to make any violence.”
Among them was Khiev Luy Ne, 64, who moved to the US in 1984 and now spends six months a year back here.
“I have a home in Phnom Penh, but I wanted to come here with the people and speak with them. I want lawmakers, journalists and the UN to help Cambodia.”
By the time dawn broke, most had awoken in preparation for more demonstrating, and fears of their own violent eviction had dissipated. But there was a growing unease.
“We’ve had no sleep,” Luy Ne said. “One person is dead. Everybody’s crying over this. This is the same Cambodia as 20 years ago.”