Sunday, September 15, 2013

DEATH IN PHNOM PENH - How a peaceful demonstration turned ugly and resulted in the death of a man who was not, as far as i known at present, a protestor

I was present in Phnom Penh yesterday, and filmed, the sequence of events that began with a peaceful demonstration and ended with the death of one man last night.

The Cambodian Ministry of the Interior had given permission to the Opposition – the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) - for the demonstration to occur. The CNRP is contesting the recent election results, claiming that it has won and that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has lost.

Early in the morning the government set up razor wire barricades on all the major roads leading into Phnom Penh, manned by armed police with plexiglass shields, to prevent demonstrators from entering the city. Within Phnom Penh itself there were many such barricades also. This did not deter protestors. They walked into the city and a huge crowd of them met in Freedom Park for a day of speeches, singing and entertainment by Cambodian rock stars. Journalists estimated the crowd at 20,000. A week beforehand a considerably smaller demonstration was also said to heave been attended by 20,000. And I have been at a rally that the press  claimed was attended by 20,000 at which there were not more than 1,000. It seems that 20,000 is the figure that the press has latched onto to describe a ‘big crowd’.

All went well until late afternoon when a group of demonstrators  started shouting at police on the other side of a razor wire barricade. Prominent amongst them were women – one elderly lady whose land and home were stolen from her last year giving the police a piece of her mind. There were some hot-headed young men also hurling abuse at the police.

The police responded eventually by firing small explosive devices into the crowd. At first I thought this was tear gas, took a deep breath and covered my eyes. The rest of the crowd though the same and scattered in all directions. It turned out that these small explosive devices were really just big fire crackers that produced a lot of smoke. The crowd, angrier now, returned to the barrier and started to dismantle it. They succeeded, tearing it down and dragging the razor wire away.

The police responded by placing two fire engines in position. They made it clear with a very short burst of water that they were serious about using these two improvised water cannon. The crowd laughed, did not take the police seriously.

One angry young man stood in front of the police shouting at them, taunting them,  more or less inviting them to  blast him with water. The police obliged and he was knocked to the ground. He lay there unconscious as the stream of water continued to be directed right into his face. This only served to enrage the crowd further. The tone of the demonstration, which had been genuinely peaceful up until then, changed.

Later in the night, on one of the roads that had been blocked, a father of four (not a demonstrator)  was trying to get back to his family. The details are sketchy at the time of writing but an altercation between him and the police ensued and he was shot dead.

The two political parties are meeting today in an attempt to find a way out of the political impasse. Sam Rainsy’s CNRP insists that the only way out is for there to be an independent investigation into the irregularities it claims led to its official defeat in the 28th July elections. If not the CNRP will refuse to take their 56 seats in the National Assembly.

Hun Sen’s CPP insists that the National Assembly will be convened on 23rd Sept and has said publicly, if the CNRP does not take its 55 seats, that he will give them to his own party.

If neither party budges the stage is set for more violence and deaths.

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