It's just before dawn at Wat Tram Neak, a few kilometers outside Siem Reap town,
and some 300 people are milling about in the rising dust of a dirt road. They form
two lines behind a bullock-drawn cart, and wait to march through the city and into
the temple complex of Angkor Wat.
After a 16-day, 315-km walk from Phnom Penh, about 300 marchers circled the Bayon at Angkor Thom before performing a ceremony for non-violence, political tolerance and freedom of expression.
This will be the last leg in the Alliance for Freedom of Expression (AFEC) rights
march that began 16 days earlier in Phnom Penh. But, now, the event organizers are
nervous. They received word the previous day from the government body that controls
the archaeological park that they would not be allowed to enter. According to the
Apsara Authority, the march would disrupt traffic and deter tourists.
Ahead of the marchers, police and military police have been deployed in force. They're
waiting in trucks that form a roadblock across Route 6.
But 315 km from their starting point, the marchers are determined to reach their
destination. Ou Virak, general secretary of the AFEC - a coalition of 28 NGOs and
labor unions that organized the march - had walked the entire distance from Phnom
Penh and said he would not be persuaded from their plan.
"If they do not let us march to Angkor, we will sit on the road," he said.
"We will not be forced into a different path."
AFEC organized the rights march to promote freedom of expression, nonviolence and
political tolerance. Departing from Wat Phnom on February 28 the march covered about
25 km each day, passing through Kandal, Kampong Cham and Kampong Thom provinces and
arriving at Wat Tram Neak on March 14. About 100 marchers walked the entire distance,
with others walking for shorter periods.
Now, on March 15 - the day before the start of the commune election campaign - the
success of the march seems uncertain. Some fear there may be arrests and violence.
Then word arrives: the authorities have allowed the march to proceed. The bullocks
are coaxed into action and the orderly group walks on to Route 6. The military police
have dispersed and under the morning sun there is a sense of jubilation.
Kem Sokha, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, heads the march. He
smiles and waves to the local people as they enter Siem Reap.
"The Apsara Authority thinks tourists don't want to see a protest," Sokha
told the Post. "They think it is just a negative thing. But they're wrong. This
march is positive. We showed them we're strong and committed - and they backed down."
Along the road through Siem Reap the marchers are applauded. People come forth with
food, water and money. Some stop and bow before the monks to seek their blessing.
The group passes a local high school and students run from their lessons to cheer.
Virak said such welcomes have been typical.
"Everywhere we have been welcomed ," he said. "Each evening we counted
the 100, 500 and 1,000 riel notes, and it was just amazing how much support we received."
Virak said the majority of the funds for the march came from the Cambodian people
and that such self-reliance was critical.
"It is a breakthrough when Cambodians can think they themselves can push through
an agenda and not rely on a donor or the government," he said. "We want
to give Cambodians the confidence to act for themselves."
Each evening the group stayed in wats where they invited the local community to attend
forums to discuss issues affecting the country. These "themes of the day"
included land rights, the distribution of natural resources, political violence,
corruption and freedom of expression.
Such rights marches have been rare in recent times. In the 1990s, led by the late
Maha Ghosananda, marches became a significant means for popular resistance in Cambodia.
Ghosananda - dubbed by the Western press as the "Ghandi of Cambodia" -
believed marches were essential for reducing fear and uniting the country.
But Virak said since 1998, the ruling party has cracked down on protests and people
are now fearful to participate.
"There is a stigma about protests in Cambodia and a fear among the people to
express their views publicly," he said.
"So to show the people that you have to push the limit is very important. We
are not being secretive. We are not whispering or trying to hide. The fact that we
are actually on the streets is really significant. Some people never imagine that
such things are possible."
Some analysts have criticized the march, saying it inadvertently supported the government
by intimating that there actually is freedom of expression in Cambodia.
Virak said he had no doubts the ruling party allowed the march to proceed because
it was close to the commune elections, but said in doing so they had set a precedent.
"They've allowed us to march now and in doing that they're not being suppressive.
But there are more elections coming and if they continue to allow us to protest then
they deserve credit," Virak said. "But if they don't, then we will challenge
Virak said the march and the daily forums had been a huge success and had educated
the people about the issues affecting their lives and the proper functioning of democracy.
As the marchers walk the final few kilometers to Angkor Wat the mood is increasingly
emotional. In the 37-degree heat the pace is slow, but spirits are high. When the
five famous towers of Angkor appear through the trees, there is an air of celebration.
For many of the marchers it is their first time to Angkor.
In front of the temple the group pauses. They pray for Cambodia's peace and prosperity
and pose for photographs on the steps of the causeway. Tourists jump from tuktuks
and join the throng, cameras clicking.
Sy Savandy, 25, a nun from Wat Samathiphal in Banteay Meanchey province, has walked
the entire distance in bare feet. Her left foot is crippled and she walks with a
pronounced limp. Organizers said she became ill in the first week and they wanted
her to quit. She refused.
Savandy weeps as she arrives at Angkor.
"After walking for a long time the pain became normal," she said. "I
just want so much for Cambodia to live in peace and prosperity."
From Angkor, the group marches on to the Bayon. Here the monks light a symbolic "fire
of violence" and circle the Bayon. Members of the 12 political parties have
been invited to douse the fire, thereby symbolizing their support for nonviolence
and political tolerance. Only one member of a minor party attends.
Virak said he was disappointed the parties did not send representatives, but he was
"I didn't expect much from the ruling party. It is always the way. We offered
them the chance to show their commitment to nonviolence and they decided not to show."
In the evening light the ancient stone faces of the Bayon peer out at the marchers,
who toss yellow paper ribbons into the air. The ribbons, symbols of peace, fall to
the ground and are quickly swept up by the organizers, who fear the mess will anger
the Apsara Authority.
The marchers, exhausted but jubilant, pose for photos and slowly disperse.
Penh Pov, 29, a monk from Wat Botum in Phnom Penh, is one of the last to leave.
"The government almost always prevents us from taking action, so here we've
had a chance to ask for our rights under the law," he said.
It's his first time to the Bayon and in the fading light Pov is close to tears.
"In the past we had such a strong civilization but now we are nothing,"
he said. "We don't demand that our leaders build something like Bayon, we just
want them to do better. We want them to give us real democracy and real rights. We
want them to give Cambodia back to the people."