Land activists said it was a spiritual ceremony; authorities described it as the latest attention-grabbing from “professional protesters”.
Whatever the case, once the familiar scuffling between menacing security guards and civilians had passed yesterday, a demonstration calling for the release of 21 workers and activists arrested in January was a different spectacle from the excessive violence of recent months.
The demonstration began with forces blocking protesters from the Boeung Kak, Borei Keila and Thmor Kol communities as they tried to gather outside the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, seizing a drum and power supply.
But when the group shifted to an area near Riverside, the morning took on a spiritual tone and protesters dressed in white – some with their faces made up to resemble deities – prayed to the gods.
During the prayer session, Pich Lemkhuon, a Borei Keila villager representative, one of those in costume, screamed out for prisoners to be released, causing some of the crowd to suggest he had been possessed by a spirit associated with justice. “Why are you detained? Do not be afraid, I will help you all,” he shouted.
Boeung Kak villager representative Tep Vanny said the villagers believed that the praying would assist in bringing about the release of the 21.
“If we do not believe it, why did we set this up?” she said.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he believed the answer to that question was clear.
“These are professional protesters. The people from Boeung Kak are involved in all demonstrations, not just land activism,” he said.