By Mu Sochua
The trucks with 56 indigenous leaders arrived from Mondolkiri province the night before the three-day protest was scheduled to start. They wanted to avoid the roadblocks. A 47-year-old woman settled down with her four children after walking for 23 days from Kompong Cham province. Thousands of Phnom Penh residents were at Freedom Park to give their advice on how we should cordon areas to make sure the entire space is safe and secure for the expected 40,000 protesters. Families came with dinners all prepared and, of course, the youth with their iPads and iPhones wanted to be the first to post what is happening at Freedom Park—by now known as Tee-Lean.
We, the organizers, are now used to the details of logistics. A sign of relief could be heard when the sanitation committee was successful in adding eight more latrines; the local company got the green light from the Phnom Penh governor’s office to rent to Sangkros Jheat, the CNRP.
In the early morning, our youth band is in full blast and a breakfast of hot French bread and a bottle of water for each protester is served. Women outnumber men and take front rows at each cordoned section in the park.
We occupy Freedom Park, which just two days earlier was filled with more than 1,000 anti-riot police in full gear practicing their maneuvers, and preventing a grassroots network from holding a peaceful People’s Congress. This is the same Freedom Park where a bodyguard of Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared with a concealed weapon the previous week at a rally for schoolteachers.
By now we have learned that numbers count.
We have also learned that standing firm to defend the principles of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression is most important in convincing the government to perform its duty: securing Freedom Park for the people and stay off its parameters.
“I am from Oddar Meanchey and why is there not such a protest in Oddar Meanchey where the company has a free ticket to burn our crops? “ asked a 45-year-old woman in a torn shirt.
“This is the last hour of the protest and finally I get to speak. I am lost for words,” she said before sitting down, after handing over documents relating to the land she lost, with a sense of relief that her voice has been heard.
There are many other stories.
“I am from the Cham community in Mondolkiri,” another woman tells the crowd in Freedom Park.
“The prime minister gave away our land to the Vietnamese companies. I am talking about hundreds of thousands of hectares of fertile land. Our community voted for change. Where are our votes? Without our land we, the Cham, will no longer exist.” She walks backstage with a sense of determination similar to the faces of many villagers in the land rights movement or the in the faces of workers who own the streets when they go on strike which is almost a daily now event in Phnom Penh.
“Boeng Kak lake development is a disgrace. The prime minister eliminates an entire community. I am here as a youth to pay tribute to the women of Boeng Kak Lake. Where is justice?”
“Pailin was once rich with precious gems and now we farmers in Pailin are hit with floods, our crops are destroyed and how can we pay back the debts we owe?”
“We are monks from Kampuchea Krom where our rights as a people are denied. We live with oppression but refuse to lose our identity and our religion. We will continue to rise up and to practice Buddhism and nonviolence. We refuse to be defrocked.”
The protesters line up every day for “free speech hour.” This is the human face of Freedom Park. The women who defy social norms that tell them not to utter a word or speak louder than men because they have come to the end of the road in their fight for justice. The force of numbers is now even more real when each story of struggle and of injustice is revealed with grief and anger.
The power in each voice is intensified with the applause and the cheers from the 40,000-strong crowd, which turned out during last month’s three-day protest, with their headbands, their homemade signs and national flags.
Money is instantly collected for the children, the elderly and the people with disabilities and more donations go into collection boxes.
Braving the intimidation of local authorities who threaten them if they dare to speak up, the protesters have one message in common: We refuse to live in fear.
Freedom Park gives us the legitimacy and the human values and equality that they don’t have back home. When they go back, they will tell the village chief to join them next time because his land is also in the hands of the big tycoons.
This recent second three-day protest was even more inspiring as the petitions of more than 2 million thumbprints were taken to various embassies to remind them of their obligations as signatories of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.
We promised that it would include a three-day march through the streets of Phnom Penh and the authorities agreed to respect our rights. The code of ethics of nonviolence is repeated every 20 minutes by the master of ceremony in the park to remind the protesters of the pact we made: nonviolence. We have no enemies. The police forces are also our people. They also voted for change.
Our call for youth volunteers was met by thousands who come from rural and urban areas to form human chains providing security for the marchers. The handsome face of a familiar young media star standing next to the sign “I Love Cambodia Hot News” is an image of the Cambodia of today. He lost his contract with big media companies because of his association with Freedom Park. But his conscience guides him back to the people each time there is a protest.
On stage, the singer Kosal sings his signature song: “You Let People Eat Beans When You Eat Soup,” which gets the protesters moving out of Freedom Park on their march.
The CNRP lawmakers-elect are instructed to be part of the human chain. “No confrontation. Keep the crowd moving. No enemies. We are one people, one nation.” I practice my “No weapons, No violence” song. We commit, we practice, and we put the principles of nonviolence into real action on the march.
We remember the last three-day protest and the razor-wire barricades. We mourn Mao Sok Chan who was brutally killed on the Kbal Thnal Bridge. We miss Panha, the 19-year-old who was axed to death when he returned home from the first three-day protest. But we must move on and keep our promise for nonviolence.
The 25,000 protesters get on their feet and the human chain follows. Those too weak to join are urged to remain at Tee-Lean, Freedom Park.
The people of Cambodia have a valid reason to march for as long as it takes to reveal the truth, and to ensure the necessary reforms for the nation put in place for the country to follow a truly democratic track. To those who question our cause we say: Join us in defense of freedom. Need there be more justification? Democracy and justice cannot be built over night, but certainly won’t be built unless people take a stand and overcome the tactics of intimidation and fear.
Standing tall with the people at Freedom Park is a moral obligation. Each march sows the seeds of democracy in a Cambodian spring that has come after a long harsh winter. National unity is at stake, and making a quick political deal because we do not dare face up to three decades of abuse of power is not what the people want.
Before the July election, critics, independent analysts and the international community gave little chance to the opposition. They described it as having no grassroots base.
Then when the opposition exceeded all expectations in the face of intimidation and irregularities, many call for us to simply give up and go back to business as usual.
The simple truth is that so many of these so-called “experts” are out of touch with the fundamental change, including the generational change that is taking place in Cambodia.
They continue to write about the CNRP as if it is only about two individuals. In fact, the opposition is a nationwide constructive force with the moral authority to raise the voice of the people and nonviolently march in the streets of cities and villages until the roots of oppression are lifted and more accountable and responsive democracy established.
A long lasting “Spring” with nonviolence is in the making by the people of Cambodia. The culture of nonviolence can only be built in the framework of the Constitution and truth.
Be part of the change and join us in enlarging more space at Freedom Park.
Mu Sochua is a lawmaker-elect for the CNRP.