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The manipulation of the 'people's will'

The manipulation of the 'people's will'

FEAR and anger. Anger and fear. These were the two emotions that sparked what some

called "the people's will" revolt that took over the streets of Phnom Penh

for the past three weeks.

But was it truly "the people's will" or rather an organized and designed

revolution that played on genuine feelings stirred up solely for the gain of political

leaders on all sides?

One political analyst said: "Basically both sides have been gathering a lot

of people. The use of demonstrations existed before. Political parties have the ability

to mobilize [people] quickly and they are playing on fear, incentive, rumors and


"Morally, we do not have very good leadership on either side. People are used

and abused. Why not come to direct negotiation? Why hurt the people? Because it is

an easy tool... [people are] easy to use," he said.

"Leaders are thinking how can the people serve the game, rather than what they

can do for the people? That is what we have seen in the past two weeks."

On the opposition side, the question seems a legitimate one.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy told Agence France-Presse about his post-election strategy

July 1 - 25 days before votes were cast. It was reprinted in Cambodge Soir. He said

should any electoral observers judge the elections incorrect he would be ready to

call for demonstrations.

"If there is cheating in the election, I think that the Cambodian people will

be entitled, as in Indonesia, to put pressure on the government to ask for new election,"

he said. He did not exclude the probability of violence.

"We can stay hours and days in the streets," Rainsy said. "We can

organize demonstrations, strikes, refuse to pay tax and we will have to defend ourselves.

If they come to kill us we will have a way to not let them kill [us] easily."

Was what happened after the election a planned strategy by Sam Rainsy? Some diplomats

think so. Only Rainsy can answer but at press time he was under UN custody and could

not speak. His party advisers do not want to speak publicly on his behalf.

For political observers, the answer is a more balanced one. Genuine anger and fear

are there on the streets. But there are "useful lies", as one put it -

lies to enhance the courage of the demonstrators or to remind them of the danger

of going against the powers that be.

"Certainly manipulation exists to encourage anger, the thirst for a change of

regime," said one political observer. "Some rumors are false, for instance

that the US is ready to support Hun Sen's arrest.

"Nothing is spontaneous in the political environment of Cambodia. If it was

spontaneous it would be anarchy. This is like a remote-controlled demonstration.

Some people are in control of these demonstrations," he said.

Organized or not, the street was definitely not left to its own devices in the days

after the crackdown on "Democracy Square".

Leaflets with pictures of the police crackdown, claiming that Hun Sen's police were

Vietnamese were common. There were pictures of police under a caption saying "the

yuon head and Khmer body police beating up a Khmer". A Khmer with a Vietnamese

head was also part of the rhetoric used by the Khmer Rouge.

The photocopies were provided by Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party. Party supporters

became evasive and advised their mates to "keep quiet" when questioned

exactly who was doing the printing.

Even after the opposition pledged to call off the protests on Sept 12, some activists

were seen around the American Embassy spreading the word.

"With the moto-dop, they have an effective army," said one analyst.

Rumors of US troops coming to arrest Hun Sen were rife in the markets. At the sound

of an aircraft, people would wonder whether it was a US plane with intervention troops.

A Post journalist was asked to confirm the information.

One of the street leaflets read: "Today, a US congressman is having a meeting

to approve the arrest of Hun Sen and his subordinates... to bring them to an international

tribunal on charges of war crimes. When the arrest warrant is approved, a modern

ship loaded with modern weapons and modern aircraft that Khmer people have never

seen... will be operated by a special army unit to arrest Hun Sen."

On Sept 13, marches were headed by people waving new US and UN flags.

"We are carrying UN and US flags because I think that the CPP police will be

afraid of them and will not fire on us when they see them," said a young demonstrator.

"There was a perception that the United States was supporting the demonstrations,

with [Congressman Dana] Rohrabacher's letters and the news on Voice Of America. People

do not trust their leaders any more. They have the feeling that they depend on the

United States or the United Nations," said one political analyst.

"At least," said one diplomat, "there was the perception of US encouragement"

both within the ranks of CPP and the protesters.

"[The CPP] really believes the US is behind the demonstration... They are convinced

that the State Department controls Voice of America radio," said one CPP insider.

This view ran rife on the street.

A young, educated demonstrator said: "I heard VoA and they said that many congressmen

had asked for Hun Sen's arrest. I do not believe it 100% but I do think that the

US have given the green light to support all the resistance forces."

A young video cameramen said after seeing the UN and the US flags he genuinely though

that the demonstration was being organized by the two.

Talking about the leaflets he had, the young man said: "It can help the morale

of the demonstrators, to make them fight more to get what they demand."

One analyst said: "With false news you can stir up the courage, spirit and endurance

of the people. Still, you need real anger and a real reason to demonstrate. One person

who expresses what he has in his heart is better than thousand with empty hearts.

Their expression is eventually taken seriously despite the manipulation."

The presence of monks within the ranks of the protests was perhaps the most effective

tactic - certainly to television and newspaper crews.

On the eve of the crackdown of "Democracy Square" a monk was beaten by

police and treated on-site. Rumors spread that the monk had died and Funcinpec activists

called for help to find his body.

The following morning the party - still asking whether anyone had more information

on his death - was ready to organize a religious service.

A day later, a photocopy of the monk's "dying" words - to keep fighting

the Vietnamese troops - were distributed around the US Embassy by moto-taxi drivers.

Later in the day, two more monks were injured. Again rumors escalated they'd been

killed. A group of monks chanted over an umbrella left by one of them, providing

a splendid photo opportunity.

"[The photographers] must be happy, they got their monk now," said a diplomat,

believing that at least one of the monks had certainly been killed.

Funcinpec USA went on the Internet late last week saying it had video-taped"proof"

that only a handful of a group of 700 monks were still alive. It plainly had no such


On Sept 10 a monk was said to have been beheaded inside the Dentist Faculty compound.

At Post press time, there has been no confirmation of a single death of a monk. The

UN Center for Human Rights has "reliable reports" of the discovery of two

bodies clothed in saffron, but investigations are still on-going.

However, the confirmation of at least 16 corpses seems proof there is a massive repression

operation underway against whom the police see as the leaders of the movement.

The CPP's own "popular" intervention was, by contrast, based on fear.

Ten armed men in civilian clothes chased away hundreds of protesters and shot in

the air by the US Embassy Sept 10. The leader later claimed to be a civilian militia

in charge of district security.

In the following days, police were backed by groups of plain-clothed thugs, paid

and armed.

"It is easier for those groups to operate. In case of any blunders, that is,

killings, legal, uniformed authorities cannot be blamed," said a diplomat.

"Some [of the thugs] are not so clear about what they are doing here. CPP is

using the money [as an incentive],15,000 riel a day [and] a promise of a bounty.

It's a lot for an empty stomach," said one political analyst.

"The CPP basically says to them if you do not do it, something will happen to

you. The ruling party is using the primitive instincts from one part of society,"

he said.

Sunday Sept 13, CPP held its own "spontaneous" street demonstration. The

crowd was armed with sticks, knives and guns, and was driven in a long line of trucks.

They looked grim and were largely silent, except when Sam Rainsy's sins were shouted

from the loudspeakers and repeated by the supporters.

They were protected by a large police presence. It was effectively martial law in


"Their tools are the respect of fear. All along the roads and the boulevards,

people are afraid," said one observer. "Even the demonstrators do not understand

what the demonstration is. They are afraid of the people who are watching them. They

do not try to attract more supporters.

"How can you pretend to mobilize popular support when you are intimidating them?"

He added: "The contrast is very clear between the opposition and the ruling

party supporters. For the ruling party, only the number is important. Tens of thousands

of demonstrators armed, paid, under constraint, remind [me of] images of the black

shirts under Mussolini. They are ready to attack anyone who opposes the ruling party."

Another observer said: "The ruling party does not have support from the people

inside the city so it had to bring people from outside who do not know..."

The street strategies employed by both the opposition and the government could only

produce an uneasy and bloody stalemate. The time for the negotiation was bound to


"Under [international and royal] pressure, both strategies balanced out,"

said one political analyst. "There was enough demonstration and bloodshed. It

was time for our leaders to show some seriousness and move on, rather than playing

this game, moving toward a bargain.

"What they have been doing is at the expense of the people [and] the country.

That is what people may not understand," he said. "The anger of the people

is still here and I am not sure how the leaders will address that anger in meaningful


"The leaders are only there to satisfy their own interests," said another

one. "The only gain out of all this is that our people have overcome the culture

of fear. If the police come we disappear but we come back afterwards. It is important.

We won a culture of courage. Times change and the seeds are there."

Will the seeds remain when the demonstrators learn about their leaders negotiating

with the CPP?

Said the camera-wielding protester: "If the leaders decide to work with Hun

Sen that means the demonstrations were meaningless. That means they played with the

lives of the people."


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