An estimated 10,000 people protested in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park yesterday, calling for Cambodia National Rescue Party vice-president Kem Sokha to apologise for his alleged comments regarding the notorious Tuol Sleng interrogation centre.
Prior to the protest, the government had gone to lengths to stress that any public demonstration would be “independent”.
But the sight of security guards telling people how to hold signs, men with walkie-talkies waving people back onto village-owned trucks and a police spokesman confirming authorities had provided transport, food and water to protesters hinted at involvement on myriad levels.
Led by Tuol Sleng survivor Chum Mey, 83, protesters, some holding signs that described Sokha as a coward, called on the lawmaker to apologise for allegedly saying the Tuol Sleng interrogation centre was staged by the Vietnamese.
“I will absolutely not allow someone to rewrite history while I’m alive,” Mey told the crowd over a loudspeaker. “Kem Sokha’s speech was not the truth.” Sokha has denied making the statement, saying his words were edited and taken out of context.
National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said yesterday that local authorities had provided supplies and services to protesters, but had not encouraged any to join.
“I am not clear about the exact number of trucks, but at least a hundred trucks as well as food, water and toilets were provided by relevant authorities,” he said.
A statement from protesters opened with disclaimers that the mass demonstration was neither political nor a bid to gain benefits from the government.
“Our goal is to protest against this individual, Mr Kem Sokha, whose clear intention is to ease the sanctions of top leaders of Kampuchea Democratic Regime and to defraud the reality of Cambodian history once again,” the statement says. “We just need [Sokha] to go and light incense and apologise to the victims of Tuol Sleng prison. How difficult can it be? Why did Mr Kem Sokha refuse to do so?”
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said Sokha had not apologised because he had not made the comments in the first place.
“[He] maintains his stance. He denied the accusations,” she said.
Sochua added that she was with Sokha in Kampong Cham for the speech in question last month. “You can’t expect someone to accept guilt for a crime he never committed.”
After the demonstration, representatives went to CNRP headquarters in Tuol Kork district, where Mey presented a petition to Sochua and other CNRP representatives.
The opposition lawmaker said she respected the group’s right to protest, but had heard claims some had been paid to take part.
She added that Phnom Penh municipal police chief Choun Sovann had helped Mey to CNRP headquarters. “We want to have this kind of treatment for all.
“The head of police can’t show himself as facilitating one group over another,” she said.
Chan Soveth, senior monitor for rights group Adhoc, said the protest was unusual in that people were fully allowed to exercise their freedom without “pressure”.
“It was the type of demonstration that has never happened before,” he said, adding that many protesters seemed to have been given food, water and transport.
But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, insisted the government had not “sponsored” the events.
“To do that, we would be taking the money from the national budget. We haven’t done that,” he said.
The only efforts authorities made, he said, was to ensure their citizens were safe during the event.
At Freedom Park, protester Chim Samuon, 50, from the capital’s Russey Keo district, said village officials had asked her to join the demonstration.
“But no one forced me to come. We have gathered here to ask Kem Sokha to apologise to the victims of Tuol Sleng prison because his words brought back suffering to Cambodian people,” she said.
In a statement, the Association of Victims of Democratic Kampuchea (Ksem Ksan), of which Mey is president, distanced itself from the event.
“This action of Mr Chum Mey runs counter to the spirit of the association, whose aims are to seek justice for the victims via the court . . . and to oppose any attempts to divide the country,” the statement says.
The protest in Phnom Penh was mirrored by smaller ones across the country. Local rights groups Licadho, Adhoc and the Community Legal Education Center estimated that between 12,500 and 30,000 people demonstrated nationwide.
In Kampong Cham, Sokha’s electorate, about 3,000 took to the streets, though Sokha himself was campaigning in Kampot, Sochua said.
After the decision of the National Assembly’s permanent committee to strip the status and salaries of opposition MPs last Wednesday, the controversial Khmer Rouge crimes denial law passed through at record speed last Friday.
In a statement sent on Saturday, self-exiled CNRP leader Sam Rainsy said the treatment of opposition lawmakers created the “preconditions for a civil war” and equated to “an institutional coup d’état”.