Cambodia: Protesters, violence return to Phnom Penh’s streets
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Cambodia: Protesters, violence return to Phnom Penh’s streets

By Daniel Quinlan 

The return of protesters to Phnom Penh’s streets has been slowly gathering pace, and so have the incidents of violence.

This morning, the road in front of Phnom Penh municipal court, is blocked by fire trucks and barricades manned by security forces as ‘the 23’ arrested in the January crackdown face their second day of trial.

In a move that is unlikely to impress observers, by 8.30am the judge had ruled that the defence couldn’t use video evidence, despite the same judge allowing the prosecutor to present video evidence on April 25.

Prior to Khmer New Year, a period of relative calm was partly facilitated by the opposing political camps – the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP – getting close to political deal behind closed doors.

Before the country shut down for the holiday it seemed as if such deal was only a matter of time.  Despite the continuing political jockeying around the negotiations, the opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, said the two sides had reached agreement on 80% of issues.

After the events of the last week that time seems longer ago then it actually is. Negotiations, at least for the moment, have collapsed so it is unsurprising that the Phnom Penh’s streets have again become the space of struggle between Cambodia’s opposing political forces.

Even so, the at times random brutality of May Day seemed strange. The smallish CNRP march was left to flout the ban on demonstrations while a number bystanders were brutally attacked by the infamous and widely despised municipal ‘security guards’.

Less random was the targeting of journalists and people with cameras. Any doubts about the targeted nature of the violence were dispelled the next day when a number of colleagues were singled out and again assaulted.

The attacks left one Voice of Democracy journalist beaten unconscious with a broken cheekbone the day before World Press Freedom Day.

The terrible symbolism wasn’t lost on at least some in the government, with the Ministry of Information releasing an unsigned statement that, according to The Phnom Penh Post, “condemned police and private security forces for ‘threating, intimidating, seizing material and insulting’ local and foreign journalists.”

Leading up to last week, Mu Sochua’s one-woman protests sought to directly, but non-violently, challenge the ban on protests in a low-key and low risk way.

If the menace of violence weren’t so present, the spectacle of one woman trying to enter a designated protest area called Freedom Park and being blocked by a large group of security forces would have been comic as well as absurd.

Apparently even this was too threatening to the government and eventually led to the small group of supporters who were accompanying her being beaten by municipal security guards.

The plausible deniability of the violence used by ‘municipal security guards’ in uniform while police stand by is non-existent. It seems odd, or perhaps incredibly optimistic, for the government to think this brutality isn’t viewed by the population as not linked to the government and security forces in general.

The threat of a return to street violence in post-occupation Cambodia has always been present and senior government officials have often dispensed with any veils and issued out-and-out threats.

Max Weber’s widely cited definition of a modern state is an entity that exercises the “monopoly on legitimate violence” over a given territory. The Cambodian state still has this monopoly but seems increasingly unconcerned by even pretending it is exercising it legitimately.

Increasingly the causal violence of the Cambodia state seems to come from institutions that feel fragile and mistakenly think acts of state violence will be interpreted as strength.

It’s far from certain that the opposition can once again build up to the massive street protests they mustered at end of last year, but at this point, given the daft touch of their opponents in government, anything is possible.