Buddhist monks hold the portrait of a detainee and a banner reading "Free human rights activists, hero workers" during a prayer in a rally calling for the release of the detained anti-government protesters, in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Tuesday. Pic: AP.

By Daniel Quinlan

Anguished cries from supporters and family members echoed outside the Appeals Court in Phnom Penh yesterday as they received the news bail had been denied. They had been hoping for the release of 21 people detained since a brutal government crackdown in early January.

Rumours circulated before the official verdict that 18 of the 21 where to be released; only adding to the shock for supporters. Outside the court, David Welsh, country director for the Solidarity Center, said: “It’s obviously upsetting and surprising and makes the entire situation more unpredictable.”

Their arrests came after months of mass antigovernment protests, which, at least temporarily, have been halted by the government crackdown.

On Monday, as the leader of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy was flying back from a lobbying trip in Europe, 150 of the detainee’s supporters met and marched in defiance of a government ban without a policeman in sight.

In the days leading up to the hearing, the detainees started a hunger strike while unions said that if they weren’t released they’d return to the streets.

Rainsy was in Europe to try to ramp up international pressure on the ruling Cambodia People’s Party and to attend Cambodia’s Universal Periodic review in Geneva. Internationalising the post-election deadlock has so far been a seemingly unproductive strategy for the opposition.

Rainsy returns as Cambodia enters its seventh month of political stalemate, with the opposition still refusing to take their seats in parliament. Although the election saw historic gains by the CNRP, they continue to view it as an election ‘stolen’ through massive voter fraud and irregularities.

The opposition has mounted a campaign that initially sought an independent investigation into the election results but now seems more focused on removing Hun Sen from 28 years in power.

The moment that seemed to threaten that rule more then any other was the massive marches through Phnom Penh’s streets in late December. The already large and sustained protest movement received a potentially game changing boost when workers from Cambodia’s five-billon dollar garment industry went on strike, joining the opposition in the streets and demanding a doubling of their wages.

The response of the government was brutal. On January 3 army units attacked and arrested activists and strikers outside the Korean-owned Yakjin garment factory.

Word spread quickly in the neighbourhoods around the Veng Sreng Boulevard, an area populated by mainly by factory workers. By evening the area was no longer under government control.

Young men created burning barricades and forced trucks to block the road for over a kilometre. Their outrage was palpable, a number of them made clear they wanted the army to come so they could fight them.

Few governments allow rioters to take control of ‘their’ territory for extended periods of time but thankfully most don’t deploy men firing AK-47 at crowds. When security forces moved in four people died and dozens more suffered gunshot wounds. A 16-year-old boy, who witnesses say was shot in the chest, hasn’t been seen since.

Since the crackdown small marches and gatherings have been met with everything from smoke grenades and batons to indifference. Before the crackdown a government official summed up the situation simply by saying both sides were scared of each other.

And with good reason, the opposition and its supporters face a very real danger of violence and jail while the government fears a Cambodian spring that could bring about its downfall.

While the CNRP has made the garment workers’ wage demands its own, the detainees may have become pawns in the government’s game to pressure the CNRP into joining the parliament.

“It’s clear for us to see, the arrests and detention of the 21 are just to pressure the CNRP to legitimise the national assembly,” said Moeun Tola, head of the Community Legal Education Centre, after the verdict.

Neither side wants to overreach and be the cause of their own downfall, so like boxers they probe for the others’ weaknesses while fearful of opening themselves up to the fatal knock-out blow. Paradoxically having so much to lose also creates more incentive to negotiate and rumours persist that the two sides are close to a backroom deal. That said, if rumours were always true 18 people would not be sitting in jail right now.