​Diary of a Demonstration | Phnom Penh Post

Diary of a Demonstration


Publication date
04 September 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : James Eckardt and Chea Sotheacheath

More Topic

Sit-in, sleep-out, speeches, banners, marches, speeches, democracy, racism,

speeches, thousands on the street and barely a gun in sight...


After scores of speeches filled with anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, protesters at "Democracy Square" vandalized the nearby Cambodian-Vietnamese Friendship Monument. The event stirred long-standing international concern over the opposition's apparently racist attitudes

TThe kickoff to more than a week of speeches, marches and an unprecedented public

demonstration of tens of thousands of opposition supporters was at Olympic Stadium,

Sunday, Aug 22.

A 5,000-strong crowd the size of three football fields waved banners - "Don't

tamper with our ballots", "Recount the votes", "Our votes were

stolen" - and cheered as Sam Rainsy denounced election fraud, Hun Sen, communism,

corruption and yuon (Vietnamese).

The authorities didn't want it but grudgingly allowed it - and for every inch an

emboldened opposition gradually took its proverbial mile; and so it was to continue

throughout the week.

The crowd followed Rainsy in a quick march around the outside of the stadium. Teenagers

screamed: "Wai yuon! Wai yuon!" - Hit the yuon! Hit the yuon!

Suddenly a scuffle broke out as the crowd was directed by police and organizers back

into the stadium. Police rushed into the crowd and pulled out a pale, thin man with

a mustache. A protestor?

"Yuon! Yuon!" a score of youths screamed, breaking through organizers and

police. Two Western cameramen dashed up to film the mustachioed man who smiled in

embarassment. Or fear. A policeman held up white-gloved hands to keep the growing

mob at bay.

"What did that man do?" a reporter asked. "He is yuon!" a teenager


The man was bundled onto the police truck and driven away. An informal march headed

to the National Assembly, moto-dops beep-beep-beeping their horns to the chant: "Fun!

Cin! Pec!"

A cameraman who filmed the confrontation said: "I was 20 feet away when the

police rescued that guy. The whole thing is not only morally wrong but politically

stupid. You need leadership to nip racism in the bud. That's how Pauline Hanson got

started. You shouldn't be feeding racism. I want to ask Rainsy, 'If someone got killed

or injured today, would you feel responsible?'"

A few hundred people including Rainsy slept in cots that night in the park in front

of the National Assembly - the same spot where a Rainsy demonstration was attacked

in March last year and at least 16 people were killed.

The next morning Rainsy was again at the stadium. The crowd was two-thirds that of

yesterday's. Hundreds of moto-dops stood on their bikes, throwing their arms up at

Rainsy's punch lines. Speakers reviled Hun Sen as a yuon puppet and a traitor.

"Hun Sen khat cheath!" the crowd chanted. Hun Sen traitor!

"They shouldn't curse like that," objected a Cambodian journalist. "Especially

in Cambodia."

"No communists! No yuon! Chaiyo Kampuchea! [Long live Cambodia]."

By 5pm at National Assembly park the three hundred who had camped out the night before

had swollen to 1,000. Rainsy appealed to police in case of violence to turn their

guns against Hun Sen and National Police Chief Hok Lundy.

On Tuesday the crowd tripled. Prince Ranariddh joined Rainsy to give a speech from

the back of a pickup.


The Rainsy show goes marching on

Later that night, Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng and his officials met Rainsy and

Funcinpec representative Mu Sochua. At 10:30pm Rainsy and Sochua - dripping from

monsoonal rain pelting down outside - told reporters at a hastily-arranged conference

at the Foreign Correspondents Club that they had been ordered to call off the demonstration

or else they would be dispersed by force.

"The crackdown can come at any time," Rainsy said.

Will you tell your people to go home?

"No," Rainsy replied. "We will not run away. We will not give in to

fear." He added that his demand that Hun Sen step down was supported by "moderate

elements" within the CPP.

Out in the park, in the fierce downpour, a group of young protestors huddled under

a tent. They said that Hun Sen stole the elections, that Sam Rainsy really won, that

the people voted for the CPP purely out of fear.

Rainsy arrived, swathed in a towel, and ducked into a tent. He told his followers

that sit-in demonstrations were forbidden in communist countries but in a democratic

country like England a sit-in could go on for months.

An aide handed him a mobile phone. "Yes... Yes, thank you... Thank you, yes...".

"I'm going to the [Hotel] Cambodiana," he announced, to the office of UN

representative Lakhan Mehrotra for a meeting with Interior official Prum Sokha who

promised that there would be no action against the demonstrators that night. The

people in the tent cheered.

After the meeting Rainsy, looking tired and resigned said he might move the demonstration

from the park to the Olympic Stadium as had been offered, but would have to consult

with Funcinpec first.

Next morning, the demonstrators were still in the park. That evening, Rainsy addressed

a crowd of 6,000, a sea of banners and vendors and motos that filled the lower third

of the park. They roared with laughter and yelled "Chaiyo!"

"I don't like this," said Paiboon, a Thai businessman, from the roof of

the Regent Park Hotel. "This reminds me of Sanam Luang in May 1992. It's really


Paiboon said in Bangkok's Sanam Luang park, protestors led by a democracy activist

were pitted against soldiers of a military dictator. "They say 64 people died.

But who knows? Ying ting [Shoot and throw away]. You burn bodies and where are you

going to find them. In the air?"

The Thai crisis was defused by King Bhumipol whose royal fiat removed both antagonists

from the political field. "I don't see any direction here," Paiboon said,

pointing to the crowd below. "They're all kids down there. They know nothing.

And the difference between Thailand in 1992 and Cambodia now is that our king has

baramee [charisma, spiritual authority]. It's not the same here."

Rainsy made the rounds of camp sleepers at 11pm. "If things are really tense,

I'll sleep here."


For many, ëDemocracy Squareí was as good a place as any to kip the night

He added that he had been assured by Mehrotra that he would not be arrested. He laughed

at a question about a locally-televised interview that day with a man named Khem

Khorn who claimed to have been hired by the SRP to throw a grenade into the camp.

"Those charges are typical," he said. "I'm not worried. Hok Lundy

is looking for a pretext to attack us."


"It could come at any time," he said darkly. "Hun Sen is concerned

with preserving his image. The problem is more with Hok Lundy. He wants to get rid

of us, to find an excuse to clear us off." Lundy, unbeknown to Rainsy, was in

Australia at the time.

Rainsy said he had collected $7,000 cash donations, plus a $1,000-in-kind, and $9,000

the day before. "Now we have enough to sustain us in food... A moto driver may

make enough for two meals a day but he will give us half his money. So we are a self-sustaining

movement now."

On Thursday afternoon, Fun-cinpec speakers were at a tented podium in the middle

of what was now being dubbed "Democracy Square."

Sections had been organized in the camp for sanitation, food distribution, medical

care, security. In the cool of late afternoon, the crowd gathered for Rainsy's star

turn at 5pm.

Cha Oway, an elderly market vendor, had been here twice already. Her friend from

Kandal was just here to visit her daughter. She had not known about the rally but

said she would return to Kandal to fetch her husband who did not vote for the CPP.

An elderly couple, Vong Chan and Vong Chuchean came with their 10-year-old grandson.

They had been here since day one. A moto driver, Chan, took his bike home each night

and returned to sleep in the camp.

"I came here first because I heard there were a lot of people here," he

said. "I'm here because I hate communism. Pol Pot killed three of my children.

I have only one left. I'm angry at the communists. I'm not bored here. I don't know

when this [demonstration] will stop but I'll stay with the others until we have success.

I'm losing business but I have food to eat."

An 18-year-old drinks vendor said business was good. There were no police to ask

for money. "I'm making 30,000 to 40,000 riel a day. I've been here since the

first day."

"Do you sleep at night here?"

"No," she shuddered. "I go home every night. But I'm not afraid. My

father likes Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy, not Hun Sen."

A young moto driver claimed that his business was better here too, clearing 5,000

to 10,000 riel a day. "Many drivers come, more customers than usual. I'm here

for two reasons, to give moral support and to make business."

Two fashionably dressed young women said they worked as an accountant and cashier

for a business they wouldn't name. "We've been coming here since the first day...

We wait for sundown. We don't come when it's hot or our skins will turn brown. I

like Sam Rainsy."

"When do you think this will all end?"

"It depends. Whenever the government puts strong pressure. Then it will end."


Monsoon rains often cleared out all but the faithful

A burly 24-year-old market vendor broke into the conversation: "The demonstrators

are right. Their demands are right. I got here at 10:30am. I'll stay late, then go

home to my wife and kids. People come here by themselves. Nobody asks them to come.

I voted for Sam Rainsy. Everybody I know did. So how come number 35 [CPP] won? And

I have a complaint: how come the VOA [Voice of America radio] reports that the number

of the crowd is so small?"

The crowd now numbered around 8,000, stretching to the middle of the park and the

Vietnamese-Cambodian Friendship monument. Rainsy mounted the roof of a jeep to address

a close-packed audience.

He held up the photo of a man in a police uniform and said that his name was Pou

Makara and that he worked for Mok Chito, formerly of the penal police and now with

the foreigner department. Makara was the man "Khem Khorn" who had alleged

having been hired by the SRP to throw a grenade. He had been interviewed on television

by none other than Mok Chito.

"Mok Chito works for Hok Lundy who works for Hun Sen. Pou Makara kidnapped women

in Kratie. The police are thieves, the thieves are the police. No wonder I can't

join a coalition."

Rainsy went on to complain that the VOA had underestimted the size of his crowd last

night, which he claimed was 35,000.

"The VOA said only 5,000 showed up. Who pays the salary of the announcer, the

US or the CPP?"

Laughing, Rainsy held up a cartoon poster of Hun Sen as a one-eyed dog. "We

want new elections, like in 1993, so there will be no fraud. [NEC chairman] Chheng

Phon is a robber of elections... Hun Sen is paying back to the yuon. I don't want

foreigners living in my country without laws."

Next day, Friday, camp entertainment was in full swing: comedians, poets, blind musicians

swapping improvised lyrics about Hun Sen and Rainsy. Ranariddh did not show up for

his speech in the morning.

Supporters complained that while they were sleeping in the mud and rain, party officials

were going home. "If there's any trouble," said one Funcinpec loyalist,

"we'll be the first casualties."

The toll for pickpockets just among journalists by now stood at three mobile phones,

one wallet and one wad of 3,000 Thai baht.

One journalist said a security officer told him that they had caught a pickpocket.

"Ordinarily we would have beaten him," the security officer said. "But

we knew this would have looked political, so we just let him go. But we know what

he looks like and he won't be allowed back."

Hun Sen appeared on television to say: "There is drought in the countryside

and there's a problem of how to get aid into the country. People of Cambodia should

not have such difficulties because of politicians. The situation has caused the currency

to fall. People should put national interests first ahead of party or individual


Political placards in the camp had grown more sophisticated but remained wild. One

kid paraded by with a poster cartoon of Hun Sen as a puppet manipulated in the background

by a helmeted Vietnamese.


Prince Ranariddh (left) and Sam Rainsy (right) clasp hands over the signboard to the city's newest suburb

The Saturday night crowd was slightly smaller than the night before. This night's

novelty was a candlelight procession around the park led by monks. As it started

Ranariddh was hustled through the crowd by uniformed bodyguards and sped away in

his Mercedes Benz.

The procession was well organized. The contingent led by Rainsy circled the park

while another cut across the field to meet him at the starting point, lining the

road with flaming candles.

On Sunday, a second demonstration at Olympic Stadium drew a crowd of 7,000. People

came from the provinces though many were reportedly stopped by police roadblocks.

The stands looked like a high school graduation ceremony, kids in white mortarboard

hats, replete with yellow ribbons and political slogans. The upper center section

was filled with monks. The protestors were mostly teenagers and overwhelmingly male.

Rainsy appeared but did not speak. The crowd simply moved off north. The big difference

between this march and the first in June was that the marchers were greeted now not

with curiousity or indifference, but with applause and shouts of chaiyo! People smiled

at street corners and balconies and many joined in. The protesters doubled in number

by the time they reached Sihanouk Blvd, taking a full half hour to march past the

corner. The crowd was 15,000-17,000 strong when they reached Democracy Square.

Then things went awry.

While one section of the crowd gathered at the northern end of the park to hear speeches,

6,000 teenagers jammed up against the Vietnamese-Cambodian monument.

They jumped about shouting "Yuon!" and threw water bottles that hit the

concrete statue of a Vietnamese soldier, his Cambodian comrade and the woman and

child they were protecting.

It was 10:25am.

One kid, barefoot, shirtless, in baggy shorts, climbed up to the plinth of the statue

followed by two mates. Others on the ground grabbed a long steel pole and smashed

at the helmet of the Vietnamese soldier. A chunk of concrete fell off to wild applause.

The shirtless kid clambered behind the two soldiers' heads and was passed up a Cambodian

flag, which he waved to rock star acclaim. The other two brought bags of black paint

which they smeared over the two heads. The steel pole whacked off another chunk of

Vietnamese helmet. The crowd roared.

"People want democratic elections," said Say Sokkeang, a young man on a

motorcycle who used to be an administrative secretary to Ranariddh's Cabinet. "Political

pressure is on us."

Two hammers were passed up to the kids on the statue. One worked on the Vietnamese

gun barrel and the kid in baggy shorts bashed away on the Cambodian head till his

friend stopped him and pointed to the Vietnamese. Cheers increased to a full-throated

roar as chunks of concrete helmet flew through the air.

"I don't know if this is good or bad," said Sokkeang. "But it will

make the people of the world know that the Cambodian people don't like the elections

of 1998."

The nose flew off. A kid stomped on the head to wild cheers and laughter. The kids

with the steel pole worked on the Angkor Wat symbol on the side of the monument.

It crashed down to roars of approval. A mob swarmed around the base of the statue,

littered with broken concrete.

"We must interest the European people to see the people do this," Sokkeang

said. "They say elections are not free and fair."

There were now four kids on the head, one with a sledgehammer. He made short work

of what was left of the Vietnamese helmet. Graffiti in spray-painted green appeared

on the base: "Down with Hun Sen One-Eye. Down with Hok Lundy."

The pole was planted on the back of the statue and kids used it to shimmy up the

monument. Two Westerners rushed up with video cameras. An huge cheer erupted as a

kid emptied a bottle of yellow liquid over the both heads. Urine? Suddenly the tops

of the three concrete figures burst into flame. Gasoline.

"Tomorrow this will make the news!" Sokkeang shouted. "VOA!"

No one was in charge. Face contorted in rage, a kid smashed a hatchet at the marble

base, shouting "Yuon! Yuon! Yuon!" A man in a blue UN cap told him to stop,

but shrugged in helplessness and barked into a walkie-talkie.

Another adult appeared with a bullhorn but that didn't work. Suddenly Son Sann Party

MP Kem Sokha appeared with a dozen adults, shouting and gesturing for the kids to

come down. One by one, the kids clambered off the stature and down from the plinth.

It was 10:40am. A very long 15 minutes.

Sokha was carried on shoulders back to the speaker's podium. Rainsy, meanwhile, arrived

to ask the crowd to follow him back to the podium. Some did, some didn't. But the

violence was over.

That night, Rainsy launched a bunch of balloons festooned with SRP and Funcinpec

flags over a crowd that was larger than Satur-day's. People were close-packed around

the speaker's platform with another 2,000 around the monument, seemingly defended

by a row of monks.

"Europeans who come here must think this is the biggest nightclub in the world,"

Rainsy shouted to loud laughter. "But they don't know the trouble we have here."

A monk took the microphone to complain: "Communists want to keep the people

stupid. You couldn't learn languages during the Vietnamese days. But in other countries

people can speak openly. In the countryside, there is no work, nothing to eat. The

people are crying. Ordinary people are suffering but they can't come to join us...

The Vietnamese tell us what to do. They think they are our big brothers."

"They treat us like little kids," agreed Lim Niak, a hotel employee atop

the roof of the Regent Park. "But we're not little kids, we're adults. If you

see TV here, you don't know what is really happening. People come here to hear the

real talk, the straight talk."

On Monday, Hun Sen officially declared peace on the protestors. With Mehrotra at

his side, he promised to provide security and health care for the people of the camp.

"They can stay there three months, six months... They can get married and leave

the camp to have a baby. The sit-in is a surprise at first but later it is normal."


"Europeans who come here must think this is the biggest nightclub in the world," said Sam Rainsy. "But they don't know the trouble we have..."

Mehrotra chimed in to praise the fundamental right of public demonstrations. "The

Secretary General of the UN appeals to the leaders of Cambodia to enter into a dialogue

to form a new government. I hope that they will join hands together under the inspired

leadership of the King."

So ended the week of living dangerously. Monday's demonstration was washed out by


Rainsy said that his accusations of Hun Sen being a puppet of the Vietnamese are

not racist but merely nationalistic: "If Hun Sen was installed in power by the

Chinese, I would say he is a puppet of the Chinese... I blame Hun Sen for not being

independent enough from any external power, [for] not defending Cambodian national

interests properly."

By the Wednesday of the Post's press night, the crowd at Demoracy Square had shrunk

to less than 2,000.

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