With the exception of barricades blocking the streets surrounding Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house, Phnom Penh largely returned to normal yesterday after an eerie silence descended on the capital on Sunday evening. Rumours of post-election violence had sent residents into self-enforced lockdown.
Following a Stung Meanchey district riot and an unofficial announcement of an opposition win, the rumour mill kicked into high gear early evening, with talk swirling by word of mouth and across social media that the military were marching on Phnom Penh.
Residents were seen queued at ATMs across the city, hastily buying food and petrol, and quietly retreating into their homes, leaving the streets virtually empty by 8pm, before preliminary results were even released.
“I heard that people could come into Phnom Penh but they couldn’t leave the city.... My sister’s friend said she saw five trucks full of soldiers. People basically freaked out last night,” Sov Sothea, 32, said yesterday.
“People were going nuts ... talking to each other on the phone. Finding out what was going to happen ... our family in Svay Rieng called and told us we should come there in case anything happened so we could go to Vietnam for safety.”
The heightened military and police presence in town also fed into scurrilous rumours that Hun Sen had fled to Thailand or Vietnam.
Political blogger Ou Ritthy said he received numerous phone calls asking him to verify such scuttlebutt, including a bomb blast at a Sen Sok district market, an impending deployment of UN peacekeepers to Cambodia, and that 30,000 armed forces had been sent to the capital.
While such claims may now seem absurd, Cambodia’s recent history of political violence is firmly embedded in the minds of Phnom Penh residents.
A grenade attack on an opposition rally led by Sam Rainsy on March 30, 1997, saw 16 killed and hundreds injured.
Four months later, Hun Sen seized power from First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh in a bloody takeover that saw intense fighting in Phnom Penh’s streets.
The aftermath of the 1998 elections was also marred by violence, as post-election opposition protests were brutally put down by security forces.
English teacher Yim Socheat, 53, said he received a number of frantic phone calls Sunday evening.
“Everyone ... they called me and they said be careful ... be quiet.... Everyone was scared that it would be like 1997 again.... Everyone thought about the coup ... but now it’s quiet,” he said.
Kim Sophea, 55, said however, that she was more concerned about criminal opportunism than political violence.
“I was scared of thievery and robbery, because people take advantage of this time,” she said.
In a sign that reliable information did eventually reach some residents, 86-year-old Om Sok said she was not scared.
“I heard on the radio that the two sides have promised to keep peace ... so I believe that.”