Freedom Park Phnom Penh: A refuge for peaceBy Asian Correspondent Sep 17, 2013 2:09PM UTC
Amid violent clashes and top-level political negotiations, the mood at the opposition protests in Phnom Penh has remained upbeat, writes Michelle Tolson
The mood was bright and hopeful as the three day camp-in September 15-17 for the opposition protests got underway Sunday at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh. Though there were numerous barricades erected around the central part of the city, it appeared most people were able to walk around the obstruction of barbed wire fences and join with the mass gathering at Freedom Park.
The Friday prior to the event, bombs had been discovered by Wat Phnom and the National Assembly so the order had been given to block off Norodom Boulevard, a main thoroughfare, and side streets with barbed wire fences blocking traffic from going north of the city to the protest.
It was raining in the afternoon Sunday but shelters had been erected around the perimeters of the main gathering area and people waited patiently under the protection while naked children ran free in the rain. Grandmothers and grandfathers sported plastic rain coats, even though the bulk of the protestors were in their late teens or 20s. Happy shouts went up when they saw that a foreigner was in their midst and hands clamped my back in camaraderie. As with the September 7 peace gathering, people offered water, food, flowers and said they were glad to have me there. A man waved a large blue CNRP flag enthusiastically in the crowd and it wrapped around my head accidentally. The crowd roared with laughter as the man pulled it off me with an apology.
“I am so happy you join us. Thank you,” said a young Cambodian woman under the shelter.
When the rain let up those standing on the edges of the shelter left, yelling and waving for the rest to join them. And, most people did, despite some rain still coming down.
Protestors walked toward the stage as a group, inclusive and encouraging. People were careful with children and older attendees. I walked along the pathway sectioned off with ropes in the middle of the field, the one used by media and monks to work their way to the stage. Making my way forward through the crowd, at times someone would tap me on the back to have me make way for a group of monks. Women would lean back over the ropes so as to not touch the young monks that traveled through the crowd toward the stage (a monk must never touch a woman).
A woman told me she had come from 100km away in the provinces. After asking where I was from, she said “You make me so happy, coming here!” Again and again, people cheerfully clapped me on the back, welcoming me and thanking me for coming. The mood was infectious.
“Sam Rainsy here?” asked an older woman, hopefully peering at the stage. But he was not on the stage and, I was to learn, had been called off the help stop riots that had taken place by the riverside, according to the human rights observers that were crisscrossing the city in a quest to keep tension to a minimum and record what happened.
At around 4.30pm, human rights observers by the riverside reported that riot police were storming the Sisowath Quay street. In photos posted on social media, troops in riot gear can be seen standing along the riverside and Street 178. The barriers and barbed wire fences blocked people living in the area from returning to their homes.
Local media reported that CNRP supporters had forcibly removed the barriers, but Srun Srorn, a human rights observer working in the area with a group with other observers, told Asian Correspondent that most people were simply trying to get home with their bikes, motorcycles and cars and were frustrated. Some of these decided to climb the barrier and carried their bikes with them, which Srun recorded in photos. Though local media reported that CNRP protestors moved the barriers and provoked the police, Srun said “most” were not demonstrators. Water cannons were used against people and smoke grenades were shot into the other side of the barrier, with one man getting caught on the wire fence under the deluge of water, requiring hospitalization for fluid entering his lungs.
As the night progressed, observers made use of social media to relay information to each other and clarify news, preferring Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for their news source.
Thida Khus, Director of SILAKA, told Asian Correspondent, “[Human rights observers] get the opportunity to be in the crowd and apply the principles and their role as advocates – meaning they expand their horizon as individuals and as professionals. [It is] is similar to volunteers who work as First Aid volunteers. This work would not need to be there if the government has the capacity to play their role appropriately.”
At around 8pm observers reported via social media that there was trouble near Char Ampov market on Monivong Bridge and asked if it was possible to have more observers join to help quell tensions. Unfortunately, traffic delayed more observers from coming. People began reporting gunshots in south Phnom Penh via Facebook and stayed in their homes. The first reported fatality came from photographer Thomas Cristofoletti, who posted a picture of via Instagram. He wrote that protestors threw rocks at the police first, which escalated to gunfire.
Sina Thor, a freelance translator and reporter, said that when he arrived at the scene several police restrained him, held guns to his head and almost struck him with a metal baton. He pleaded with them to not hit him. Eventually they let him go.
Seven altogether were said to be injured from the hail of bullets. YouTube videos relayed in the aftermath preceded official media reports. A joint statement was released by civil society condemning the use of live ammunition. In the statement Tim Malay, President of Cambodia Youth Network said, “We need to know who permitted the police forces to use live ammunition. Their response was not proportionate to any threat posed by the young demonstrators.”
While official reports had caught up with events from the night before and were shared over social media Monday, the mood had changed back again to an upbeat one at Freedom Park. Bands played on the stage and people danced. One song repeated the lyrics, “Where is my vote?” Rainsy closed out the second night to wild cheers from participants who seemed defiantly cheerful in light of the tragedy.
With one more day to go in the three-day protest, the outcome remains uncertain but farmers, tuk tuk drivers and students seemed undaunted at Freedom Park. Meanwhile, the leaders of the CPP and CNRP meet today to continue discussions on how to break the deadlock with no more fatalities.