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Sit-in ends, anger lingers

Monk Seng Bunna (centre) is escorted from the Freedom Park stage by security guards after attempting to set himself on fire
Monk Seng Bunna (centre) is escorted from the Freedom Park stage by security guards after attempting to set himself on fire during an opposition party demonstration in Phnom Penh. HONG MENEA

Sit-in ends, anger lingers

A day that began with a monk attempting to set himself on fire and closed with a possessed woman predicting Prime Minister Hun Sen’s end suggested that the emotions of many were in little danger of ebbing, even as the three-day demonstration concluded.

As an exuberant crowd of thousands looked on, 35-year-old Venerable Sok Dyna climbed the stage and took the microphone, launching into a diatribe about land grabs, the destruction of natural resources and the K5 border defence plan that deployed hundreds of thousands of landmines in the 1980s.

“The world is blind to seeing the death of Khmer people through cruel actions that Hun Sen’s partisans undertook – even in this age of Facebook,” he said.

“Why won’t they help Khmer? If the world will not believe that Hun Sen’s partisans killed people, I come here to show them. I would like to burn my body here as evidence,” Dyna continued, before reaching into the folds of his rope and producing a bottle full of petrol.

A woman finds a quiet moment among a sea of opposition supporters at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park
A woman finds a quiet moment among a sea of opposition supporters at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park. HENG CHIVOAN

As he uncapped the bottle, security guards wrestled Dyna back before quickly hustling him off the stage and into a waiting car that sped away.

Protests at Freedom Park started on Sunday, with at least 20,000 streaming in from across the country to enjoy rousing speeches from the leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party and air grievances among like-minded supporters. But the mass demonstration was quickly marred by a clash on Sunday night that left one dead and at least 24 people injured, by Human Rights Watch’s count.

While the party abdicated responsibility, and even the military police said those involved weren’t ordinary protesters, the incident cast a pall on the days that followed. Though still exuberant, protesters spoke of their anger and exhaustion with the status quo.

“We have been suffering so much. We knew that [the CNRP] won, but the NEC did not recognise their win. I have suffered so much in losing my vote. I will come again to demand it back,” said Han La, 65, who had travelled from Kep province to attend the demonstrations.

Fresh from the latest round of negotiations with the ruling party, however, opposition leaders appeared loath to hint at progress. Though neither mentioned the attempted self-immolation, they promised more demonstrations to come.

Monks who support the opposition party listen to CNRP President Sam Rainsy speak at Freedom Park
Monks who support the opposition party listen to CNRP President Sam Rainsy speak at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. HONG MENEA

Avoiding detail, both party president Sam Rainsy and deputy president Kem Sokha characterised yesterday’s talks with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as failing to reach a satisfactory conclusion, though officials from the CNRP told reporters after the meeting they were optimistic about progress.

“The National Rescue Party will call people to take part in another demonstration soon,” Rainsy said. “So it is very good. As long as our will is brave, we are still determined. I believe that a just force will win over an unjust act.”

As Rainsy and Sokha left the stage before 5pm, wading through mobs of ardent supporters, thousands began pouring from Freedom Park.

Families who trekked hundreds of kilometres rolled up sleeping mats and accepted a final meal from volunteers. As a truck carrying at least 50 supporters back home rumbled past Freedom Park, fellow demonstrations screamed farewell.

An emcee took the stage and urged the remaining thousand or so to clear out, as dozens of youth began sweeping the square clean.

But long after the party’s clear-out deadline of 6pm, hundreds remained in Freedom Park, uneager to depart.

As dusk fell, a small group set up a makeshift shrine at the east end of the park. “It’s to pray for peace,” a passerby said. “And for the man who died.”

While the crowd grew around the shrine, one of the protesters began to swoon. Agitated onlookers whipped out cellphones and began recording as the women spoke – first in Thai, then in Khmer – and writhed on the ground.

“The National Rescue Party will win in the future,” the possessed woman portended, to cheers. “Samdech Hun Sen must go soon.”

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