Exasperated at running into yet another razor-wire barricade on Sothearos Boulevard yesterday, Ny Svey Paa called her boss at Lucky Seven just metres away from where she stood with her motorbike, explaining her predicament.
“I can’t get to work,” Svey Paa sighed. She had spent more than 90 minutes looking for a clear route to the fast food restaurant. Yesterday marked the beginning of a three-day mass demonstration organised by the opposition.
But as thousands gathered at Freedom Park, the typically hectic streets near Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Sihanouk Boulevard home took on an eerie feel. Roads were devoid of regular activity, but heavy with riot gear-wielding military police standing guard and preventing people going in and out of main roads and side streets.
“People, they are afraid,” Vantaa Huon, 43, said as he prepared to close his near-empty restaurant, Neak Baj Tek, on Sothearos at noon yesterday. Many of Huon’s regular customers told him they would remain in their homes all day for fear of possible violent confrontations between police and demonstrators spilling into other parts of the capital, he said.
For Sar Pet, 66, any fear of possible violence gave way to frustration with the roadblocks.
While travelling to Phnom Penh to join protests, Pet saw razor-wire fences obstructed his route once in his home province of Prey Veng and twice in the capital.
“The reason they block the roads is because they don’t want people to access Freedom Park,” said Pet, who added that he doubted demonstrators would spark any clashes with military police.
“Any violence will come from the CPP.”
But according to Brigadier General Kheng Tito, a spokesman for the National Military Police, military personnel blocked off certain roads as a security measure.
“We placed roadblocks where appropriate to maintain order and safety,” Tito said yesterday.
In addition to roadblocks, military police set up checkpoints where they required drivers to show documentation on Norodom Boulevard as well as National Roads 5 and 6A, said Chan Soveth, a senior investigator with rights group Adhoc.
While blocking the roads allowed authorities to maintain control of them, the appearance of razor-wire fences and checkpoints manned by armed military police officers spawned a current of fear among residents, Soveth said.
However, people hunkering down at home proved a boon for at least one small shop owner on Sothearos Boulevard.
“Last night, I sold about 80 cases of beer,” she said.