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