Although International Human Rights Day ended in the forceful eviction of protesters from outside the US embassy last night, monks and their supporters who spent days marching to the capital met with no opposition in the morning as they defied a ban on marching to the National Assembly.
The 1,000-strong group was among tens of thousands who marked the day in the streets and parks of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Included were 5,000 opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters who rallied at the capital’s Freedom Park and more than 15,000 people who greeted CNRP leader Sam Rainsy in Siem Reap later in the day.
Although the day ended with tension, the authorities’ willingness to stand back and let the monks march to the parliament building typified the calm mood across the capital during the morning.
“We could walk very freely. No authorities blocked us,” said But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice. “The government is opening its mind . . . and starting to give people the right to express themselves.”
The five groups of monks, who marched a combined 1,000 kilometres from different parts of the country beginning on December 1, blocked the road outside the assembly, calling for an end to rights abuses.
The restrained response from police amounted to a compromise on the government’s part, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said.
“The public respects the monks,” Siphan said. “[But these] monks are involved in irregular activity, they diminish [other monks’] credibility.”
In a text message to a Post reporter, National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said the demonstrators had been cooperative with police, and the non-violent result pleased him.
“No clashes at all happened between us,” he said.
Across the city at Freedom Park, about 5,000 CNRP supporters gathered as party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha took to the stage to call for rights to be respected and to remind the crowd why the opposition party continues to boycott the National Assembly.
To raucous applause, Rainsy told the crowd he wished to imitate Nelson Mandela’s struggle against apartheid, as the world tuned in to watch a memorial service for the late former South African leader being held in Johannesburg.
“Mr Nelson Mandela made real democracy take root in South Africa . . . South Africa has peace in actions and mor-ality that we want [in Cambodia],” Rainsy said.
The two leaders made less-than-subtle digs at Prime Minister Hun Sen throughout their speeches, not mentioning him by name while insinuating his government considered some Cambodians the enemy.
Sokha said that from the second mandate on, people had not been afforded full rights to choose their leaders.
“So today, the political message that [the CNRP] would like to send . . . on International Human Rights Day . . . is that we are all Cambodians, we need to get the present leaders out,” he said.
The CNRP would join in a program of reforms with the CPP, he added, only if the CPP agreed to call a snap election.
Kem Sokha was flanked on stage by several bodyguards, possibly a precautionary measure following a death threat allegedly made by a Facebook user against him.
Briefly interrupting the speeches, a cameraman reporting for state-run television station TVK was accused by a monk of being a government lackey and set upon by the crowd. The reporter, Seng Chan, was led to the nearby Wat Phnom police station by CNRP security under a hail of plastic bottles.
“The monk said I didn’t shoot for national television and [told me] to leave,” Chan said. “I told him he just hasn’t seen [my work],” Chan said, adding that the monk beat him and several others joined in before he was rescued by party security.
A small crowd gathered outside the police station, many believing Chan to be an undercover policeman.
“He had a gun. He’s police,” one demonstrator claimed.
Chan was released, with minor injuries, shortly after.
TVK general director Kem Gunawadh said the incident was an act of discrimination.
“It’s the journalist’s right to participate [in the protest],” he said.
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponharith said he was not aware of the incident. “We welcome all journalists without discrimination,” he said.
Ahead of the authorities’ 12pm deadline for the CNRP supporters to disperse from Freedom Park, Rainsy and lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua led about 2,000 supporters the short distance from the park to Wat Phnom, where they joined about 5,000 members of Friends of December 10.
From signs condemning corruption and the violation of women’s rights to vociferous speeches calling for the protection of natural resources and ethnic minorities, the message from the several thousand strong crowd and civil society groups at Wat Phnom was clear: poor rights protections are undermining social justice in Cambodia.
In a joint statement, the 33 NGOs that organised the event praised a few recent developments from the government, including an increase in factory workers’ minimum wage in May and the provisional release of land activist Yorm Bopha from prison last month.
But the groups targeted old bugbears such as the continued lack of an independent judiciary, land grabbing and forced evictions, basic labour rights and threats against human rights defenders. The lack of a freedom of information law and poor government transparency – areas of reform that the prime minister has asked to be expedited in the post-election period – were also singled out.
A suite of recommendations largely related to either drafting new laws or enforcing and strengthening existing laws in order to bolster human rights protections were put to the government – though the ruling party, which was invited to speak, did not attend.
The CNRP, on the other hand, did not pass up the chance to draw a symbolic link between their Freedom Park protest and the civil society celebration.
At about 11am, an indigenous dance group was performing at the front of the stage when CNRP leader Sam Rainsy appeared, flanked by a couple of thousand of his supporters. Despite the MC’s valiant attempts to keep the crowd focused on the dancing, they were soon on their feet for his arrival.
As the numbers in the park and the surrounding streets swelled, Rainsy took to the stage, taking pains in his speech to link human rights progress with leadership change, though he did not name himself or the premier.
“Adequate living standards needed for our workers to achieve their goals depend on the leadership and management of the country and depends on a leader who defends the common interest,” he told the crowd. “In order to change leaders, we need a proper, free and fair election. We need the right to select a leader of the country who can change livelihoods.”
Although the ruling party failed to send an official representative to Wat Phnom, Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Seng Rathanak spoke briefly at the event, representing Governor Pa Socheatvong.
After Rainsy’s departure, Wan-Hea Lee, country representative for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, spoke to an audience that had thinned considerably.
Cambodia would be hard-pressed to achieve true social justice and respect for human rights without a responsive government, she said, hinting that the ruling party needs to do more to integrate the ideas of the people into its policies.
“A system that is capable of achieving social justice would be an inclusive structure . . . [But] a human rights approach demands more. A human rights approach demands a structure that is capable of changing with the demands of society.
“And that depends on its openness to receiving public feedback,” she said, also urging the political parties to return to the negotiating table.
After flying to Siem Reap, Rainsy was greeted by more than 15,000 CNRP supporters gathered in the Angkor Gyeongju area, who heard him demand Hun Sen call an election like Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has in the face of protests in Bangkok.
“He should look at neighbouring countries,” Rainsy said.
The CNRP’s rally passed important landmarks in Siem Reap, but avoided the Angkor Wat temples.
In a statement released yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen pledged his government’s support for human rights.
“We are all for human rights and human rights are also for all of us,” he said.
The CNRP, meanwhile, released its own statement yesterday, saying mass demonstrations will continue by way of weekly protests beginning in Phnom Penh and other provinces on Sunday.
“We would like to appeal to all those who want to make a decision about their new leader to join,” the statement says.
REPORTING BY SEAN TEEHAN, MAY TITTHARA, KEVIN PONNIAH, KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, DANIEL PYE, MEAS SOKCHEA AND THIK KALIYANN