For 10 days and over a collective journey of about 1,000 kilometres, some 2,500 monks and supporters marching from five different provinces have found themselves locked out of temples, quarrelling with local authorities and negotiating their way into pagodas for meals.
During today’s 65th International Human Rights Day, they will attempt to navigate around possible police blockades in an effort to bring their human rights concerns to the government’s front door.
“We will not change our minds, we will walk to the National Assembly,” But Buntenh, founder of the Independent Monks’ Network for Social Justice, said.
The Ministry of Interior has explicitly forbidden any group from marching to the National Assembly today.
If the government sets up roadblocks to obstruct their effort, the monks will split into smaller bands and attempt to navigate around them, Buntenh said.
The trek has been far from simple for the five associated monk groups marching into Phnom Penh today, he added, but the collective has maintained a steadfast will that no official has the right to determine where people can and cannot walk.
Taking a lunch break yesterday at a pagoda on National Road 4 in Por Sen Chey district, Phal Vannak, a villager who marched from Kampong Speu province with a group of about 100 people – including 45 monks – said the group has resorted to aggressive measures as authorities and pagoda leadership have continually locked them out.
On Thursday, Vannak’s group blocked National Road 4 in Kampong Speu’s Samrong Tong district for two and a half hours, until authorities relented and let them into a locked pagoda, he said. They blocked National Road 4 again yesterday until they were allowed into Chompu Von pagoda, where authorities kept marchers from engaging with members of the public, Vannak said.
“They did not allow us to talk much to students and people about the human rights,” Vannak said.
People along the roads and at pagodas – on nights they were not forced to sleep under trees – seemed receptive to the human rights message marchers are expounding, said Chea Mony, president of the Free Trade Union, who is marching with Buntenh’s group. But the fact local authorities and chief monks had stymied their efforts demonstrates the need for the march, he added.
“What the authorities and some chief of the monks did was an abuse of human rights,” Mony said. “It shows that in Cambodia, human rights are not yet respected.”
In addition to the monks’ arrival in the capital today – which Buntenh predicts will come between 10am and noon if there are no road blocks – the Cambodia National Rescue Party has government approval to host up to 10,000 demonstrators at Freedom Park, while civil society groups can host up to 5,000 at Wat Phnom.
The government ban on marches on Human Rights Day was issued in an effort to diminish traffic hazards, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday. Regardless of their intention, all groups must heed the order.
“They have to respect our policies,” Siphan said of the marching monks. “Everyone has their own obligation to respect their law and cooperate with local authorities.”
National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito said his department will send at least 500 officers to monitor demonstrations today.
“The people who march have to respect the order from the Ministry of Interior and City Hall and cooperate with authorities in order to avoid something bad from happening,” Tito said. “We will maintain public security just as on a normal day.”
A nonviolent response on the police’s part would be the best course of action when dealing with the venerable marchers – who Buntenh said will place themselves between police and non-robed supporters if confronted – said independent political analyst Kem Ley.
Police gunfire that killed uninvolved people in two separate instances – one at a roadblock at the Kbal Thnal overpass on September 15, the other during a Meanchey district garment worker riot November 12 – had become international embarrassments, Ley said. But authorities will likely remember lessons learned from the most recent deadly shooting, he added.
“[Police] could not hide their performance, because everyone right now is watching,” Ley said of police shooting into a crowd supporting the strike of SL Garment workers last month. “Everyone took photos and showed them on Facebook and social media.”
Regardless of police departments’ intentions, the struggles that the monks and their supporters have faced so far have left Buntenh unfazed.
“We can block the road in Kampong Chhnang, why can we not fight in Phnom Penh? It is my home; I’m just doing my job.”