Hitching a Lift Through Sunday’s Protest with Sam Rainsy’s Wife

Naomi Collett Ritz hitched a lift through Sundays’s mass CNRP protest with Sam Rainsy’s wife, and managed an exclusive interview in the process. Here’s her report for K440

Beginning Sunday morning tens of thousands of Cambodians descended on Freedom Park to take part in a three-day protest against voting irregularities in July’s national election. Following a mid-morning speech by Rainsy thousands of demonstrators marched away from the designated protest areas and towards Wat Ounalom, although Norodom Boulevard had been blocked off all morning by barricades and barbed wire. Now, less than 24 hours into the protest, people have been shot in the streets after clashes with police.

We took a midnight bus from Siem Reap on Saturday because we had heard the police were stopping people from entering Phnom Penh and we wanted to avoid traffic. We were stopped at a border check around five in the morning, but had no problems, so we arrived just after six. As we drove immediately towards Freedom Park we noticed that most roads leading to the park had already been cordoned off and police were stationed at every corner – a much more notable police presence when compared with last week’s three-hour demonstration.

Thousands more people had turned out from other provinces, and the park was already half full as we turned onto a side street to get closer to the park. The police stopped the three of us, but we flashed press passes, so they let us through.

Many people were already camped out on bamboo mats having family picnics; and they were feasting. Thousands of dollars had been donated to feed the people who came from far away for the sit-in, so garbage bags full of bread, rice, steamed fish, and dumplings were being passed out in excess.

Being some of the only foreigners, we had no problem winding our way through the crowd and hopping on stage to hear Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha address their supporters. I have no idea what they said, but soon after people began to spill onto the streets and march together towards Norodom Boulevard.

We were running down a side street to try to catch up with the people at the front of the parade when an Escalade with blacked out windows pulled up and the back door opened. “Want a ride?”

As we piled in my friend whispered that Choulong Somora, Sam Rainsy’s wife was in the car. As we sped off toward the mass of protesters she relayed that she was uncertain about what was to come.

“I think he’s marching towards the river. And to tell you the truth I’m worried. Because I’m sure that he is going to get everybody to march, as well, which is forbidden.”

She and her driver counted the military we passed, then she leaned forward and sighed: “And there is barbed wire, as well. I told him there was barbed wire. He didn’t listen to me. I said I’m going to send somebody to take pictures to show you. He didn’t listen to me. So he is coming by himself to see with his own eyes. And he’s probably going to try to have these barbed wires removed. Which probably is going to be very risky and dangerous.”

When I asked if she was worried about the outcome of the protest, she replied without ever taking her eyes off the road ahead. “Well, I’m worried for the demonstrators. I’m sure they’re not going to do anything to Rainsy. He must have been told something. He looks worried also. We better get out here.” We stopped just ahead of the mass of people running through the streets and cheering, so I clambered up the horse statue opposite Wat Ounaloam.

As the police loaded tear gas canisters and opened fire with water cannons the protesters- undeterred- tore down the barbed wire and dragged the fencing into the Tonle Sap. Quickly pouring through the gaps in the barricade, they circled the pagoda and prayed with Sam Rainsy then continued their march to Wat Phnom; gaining momentum and support from onlookers.

After following the parade for about an hour we saw a helicopter shooting away from the city and many people waved goodbye to Mr. Hun Sen. The energy stayed high all afternoon as most people made their way back to Freedom Park to hear Mr. Rainsy speak at six – the exact time the demonstrators had been warned that they needed to evacuate the park.

After a few more speeches many people went home to the comfort of their beds and the rest nestled under tents that had been set up along the perimeter of the park.

We thought the excitement of the day was over, so we went for dinner and drinks, but one of the waitresses told us a bomb had gone off on a bridge and many people were dead. Hanging out with journalists is like being friends with stormchasers, so we overpaid our bar tab and the three of us clambered on a motorbike while the waitress gave our driver directions.

As we got closer to the bridge we saw shrapnel, gas canisters, and chunks of pavement littering the bridge, and hundreds of armed police were lining the road and filing into a huge warehouse just. They let us run around and take photos, but no one would tell us what was going on. Then we heard gunshots, so we booked it down the street until we could find someone to give us a ride towards the source. Maybe fifty men were lining the street just down the road from the police under the bridge, and were feeding a handful of fires in the middle of the road.

Some of them were carrying rocks, and the CPP headquarters nearby had been abused, so my friends suggested I went home. I watched them run towards the fire and a guy named Cham came up to me and tried to explain what had happened.

He said the CNRP tried to move more barriers and cross the bridge, so the police had resorted to excessive force. Cham told me at least one man was dead and eight or nine people shot, so the people had become angry with the police.

I sat on the curb with him and watched the fire grow from a safe distance, but we saw military trucks loaded with riot police approaching from the direction of the bridge, so Cham told me to quickly get on the moto. He sped down the road as the military trucks closed in on us and we heard more gunshots and I wondered if my friends were okay and realized one of them had my phone.

He yelled over his shoulder that the police were coming from both directions to trap anyone near the disturbances, so he drove down an alley and we waited with a handful of other people hiding. We heard that the police tried to take away the bodies of the people they killed, but that the people wouldn’t let the police get near him, so he laid in the street for hours until a UN envoy showed up and took his body to the pagoda.

The trucks drove by one more time, but after about an hour Cham felt it was safe enough for me to go back to my guesthouse. I got back to the guesthouse at around 2:30am and got on the computer to check the internet for news.

A little after 3am I heard a knock on the door. My friends had followed the rioters as they marched towards the warehouse where the police had gathered, and although they weren’t sure what they had seen and how bad the fight was, they did bring me a graphic close-up picture of a Cambodian man lying in a pool of blood and draped with a Cambodian flag. The protest is scheduled to go on for days, so who knows what will happen tomorrow.

Naomi Collett Ritz

11 thoughts on “Hitching a Lift Through Sunday’s Protest with Sam Rainsy’s Wife

  1. Arthur Fannin Reply

    It is a great pity that a worthless xenophobe like Sam Rainsy is the leading opposition figure.

    Give him access to a microphone and all he has to tell us is the absurd claim that the horrid Vietnamese have grabbed Cambodian territory and are taking over Cambodia.

    He never mentions the landgrabs, the evictions or the wholesale disposal of Cambodia’s assets – at fire sale prices – to people with CPP connections.

    The reality for Cambodia these days is China, not Vietnam. Sam Rainsy seems unaware of this; all he knows is that anti-Vietnamese xenophobia plays well among the uneducated and semi-educated.

  2. Sid Reply

    @ Arthur Fannin. I agree with you that Sam Rainsy is a racist. Listening to his speech in Khmer language, he sounds like a clown. He never mentioned how he is going to improve the economy and life. He rather blames everything on Vietnamese, “Yuon took our land, our fish, and our forest. We need to take our Angkor Wat back from Yuon.” How dumb is that for a political leader to make such an untrue statement. I am neither Vietnamese nor pro Hun Sen. I was born in Cambodia and was educated in the U.S. For Sam Rainsy and his party to blame Vietnamese and foreigners and fail to focus on Cambodian own issues is a disservice to the country.
    When the last time you saw a Vietnamese (Yuon) took Cambodian forest. Sam Rainsy thinks Vietnamese took Ankor Wat because the ticket system is run a Vietnamese company whose owner Sok Kong is the man of Vietnamese descent. But that’s how the business world should function. We hire the best regardless their race and ethnicity. In the U.S. the bus and train ticket system is owned by a French Company. The chain movie theater AMC in the U.S. is owned by a Chinese company. American products and companies Starbuck, McDonalds, Microsoft, Boeing, and Pharmaceuticals are everywhere in the world. Japanese and German cars are also everywhere.
    Sam Rainsy keeps using the word “democracy” to fool the West. He and Khmer radical keep making racial incitement. When I was young in Cambodia, I often heard the radio announcer telling listeners to kill every Vietnamese in Cambodia. When the government shut down the radio station, the station owner cried to the west “we have no freedom of speech!” When I was 14 years old, I witnessed a bus load of people were slaughtered by Khmer radical because they looked Vietnamese. Later on, we found out that those victims were Cambodian of Chinese descent who happened to look Vietnamese.
    The woman in the above photo is no difference from a corrupted Filipino politician’s wife. Sam Rainsy is very good in manipulating poor and ignorant Cambodian and peasants. That’s what Pol Pot did.
    Most Cambodian politicians are stupid. Damn, I should be a Cambodian politician and open more bars for you Expats!

    • Dirty Expat (Dirty for short) Reply

      Before you open the bars just make them a little less blatant.

    • Jac Reply

      Hi Sid, I’m an expat living in Phnom Penh and have been watching the election unfold over the past year. I have to concur with your comments regarding concerns over Rainsy and his strong opinions about the Vietnamese.

      Do you think that underneath he is actually racist? Do you think that he is too smart to be racist and that he is just being manipulative? He knows by evoking this hatred he will gain more support and strengthen his ties with the people – united in hate. It appears that he has convinced Cambodian people that this is Cambodia’s biggest problem. I think this technique is clever but extremely dangerous. As you said, this technique has been used by many powerful leaders of the past with dire consequences.

      Since the election, I find it interesting that Hun Sen has stayed so quiet and not directly responded to many of Rainsy’s criticisms (like politicians do in the West anyway). It seems he has chosen to disengage somewhat. I’m interested in others’ thoughts, is it cultural to not enter debate in this manner? Or is it that he knows he has cheated and therefore is staying quiet?

  3. Frank West Reply

    Corrupt politicians are ubquitous, these days, but in different ways in the West (where they pander to big business), and what is really needed is minimalism in government and a fair marketplace that removes cartels run by big business from the game. I was just thinking it must be a great power kick for politicians to get people to die for them, whether in demo’s as above or in wars as in Blair and Bush – you can imagine them rushing home to give themselves a frantic hand job. The real strength is in a mass of people simply saying no

  4. Dirty Expat (Dirty for short) Reply

    Sam Rainsy is still living in the political situation of the very late 1980s and into the early 1990s. Unfortunately the country has moved on since then and he missed it because he was getting rich in France. Throwing around terms like ‘communist’ resonate with a hundred thousand or so of the post-Lon Nol Cambodian diaspora around the world but are otherwise meaningless.

    As a matter of fact, considering the kleptocratic tendencies of the ruling class they are anything but communists. I would expect to meet people like that on Wall Street. Ironically, I bet Sam Rainsy and company would be there too! this is not an issue of democracy but dirty power games. Sam Rainsy seems self-entitled to ruling Cambodia and he will sacrifice the well being of the society he has mostly been distant from since 1975. He is not a Nelson Mandela. He is not a Martin Luther King, Gandhi and definitely not Ho Chi Minh. He is a fake.

    All those demonstrations and violence in the heart of tourist town in Phnom Penh will win him no favors. For now his ‘peaceful’ demonstrations look good in the anti-establishment press but there is no question he is to blame for the current political instability and the negative impact it will have on tourism and foreign direct investment.

  5. Hun Sen Reply

    Sam Rainsy, is sadly the main pick for ANY soft NGOér as the right pick,
    not only is he racist, but each time they let him do what he want, Phnom Phen have violence and dead’s but yes NGO’s likes him.

    For me the best thing to Cambodia is not Sam Rainsy and his New Khmer Nazi party,

  6. Jim Wong Reply

    I support Hun Sen and his CPP. Why?
    Hun Sen brings Cambodia back to life,
    he’s also the person who put Noradom Sihanouk
    back to the King position.I’m not cambodian,
    I’m US citizen presently living in Seattle, WA.
    CRNP should have better vision, rather than its
    racism. Everybody around the world love and
    support Hunsen.

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