Following days of anticipation, the first “Black Monday” demonstration last May calling for the release of four rights workers and an election official soon descended into chaos.
Ee Sarom, executive director of housing rights group Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT), and Thav Kimsan, deputy director of advocacy for rights group Licadho, were bundled into a police van after getting into an argument with district security guards as they were attempting to march toward Prey Sar prison.
Dozens of security guards and police then descended on the area, chasing protesters and throwing them into trucks. Even passing members of the public were pulled over and interrogated by police if they happened to be wearing dark clothes.
It would be the first of many street confrontations between black-clad protesters and security forces at the start of each week, and a hint of the difficulties activists would face in staying together and getting their message across.
Black Monday was called by numerous NGOs after four officers from rights group Adhoc and an election official, who is also a former Adhoc employee, were accused of being involved in bribing a woman to deny to authorities that she had an affair with then-deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha. Many political analysts and international observers called the case a politically motivated attack on the opposition and an attempt to muzzle dissent. The five detainees—known collectively as the Adhoc 5—remain in prison without a trial more than a year later.
After the first Black Monday protest, authorities quickly announced that the rallies were banned, branding them illegal acts of rebellion. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak accused the protesters of being “drunk with human rights.”
Im Srey Touch, an activist from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak community who was arrested five times for her role in Black Monday demonstrations, said she joined the protests as she genuinely felt it could lead to the government releasing activists who had helped her in the past.
“We believed our activities would result in them being released because they are innocent people, but the government just tried to create a case against them,” Ms. Srey Touch said.
It wasn’t long before Prime Minister Hun Sen waded in on the issue, announcing on the day after the first Black Monday that he would ban any protests in which participants were all dressed in the same color.
“It does not matter what color you are—I told [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng and the other leaders not to care about the color—if you commit a wrong, arrest them all,” Mr. Hun Sen said at the time.
Ms. Srey Touch believed the premier was rattled by the prospect of the movement growing.
“Samdech didn’t want us to rally in public or say anything bad about Cambodia. I think he’s scared that many people could have joined the Black Monday campaign. That’s why he tried to accuse us of making a color revolution,” she said.
However, after the arrests of Mr. Sarom and Mr. Kimsan, the NGOs that kicked off the campaign immediately stepped back from the streets and resorted to just posting photos online.
This led to the likes of Ms. Srey Touch and Phok Sophin, an activist from Phnom Penh’s eviction-embattled Borei Keila community who was also arrested on numerous occasions, carrying on the movement amid dwindling numbers.
“When I was arrested a brigadier general asked, ‘Why would you like to wear a black shirt like in the Pol Pot regime?’ But I told them that I was just wearing it because the government was targeting innocent people,” Ms. Sophin said inside an apartment in Borei Keila on Wednesday.
Other issues beyond the release of the Adhoc 5 began to come to the fore at the protests, particularly after the shooting of popular government critic Kem Ley in July, a murder widely accused of being a political assassination.
In August, the country’s most prominent activist Tep Vanny was arrested during a Black Monday protest and jailed—where she remains today—after the courts dragged up a case relating to a 2013 demonstration where security guards beat protesters.
Following the arrest of Ms. Vanny, core protesters began disappearing from view, including Boeng Kak’s Ms. Srey Touch.
Ms. Srey Touch said it was as a result of losing the support of some family members of the jailed Adhoc employees, insisting that she was never scared of arrest.
“The main reason I stopped was because once we were protesting outside the Appeal Court and officials took our banners. When the families left they did not smile at us and walked away,” she said.
“We got word from Nay Vanda’s wife that the other families felt it would lead to [Mr. Hun Sen] putting more pressure on them. She later told us that the other families don’t want protests, just thumbprints.”
Pheav Mey, the wife of Mr. Vanda, declined to comment on the issue.
But the spouses of Ny Chakrya, deputy secretary-general of the National Election Committee and former head of Adhoc’s human rights section, and Adhoc’s head of monitoring, Ny Sokha, both said they were not opposed to the Black Monday campaign.
“My intention is to say that the decision to continue or stop is their will,” said Yem Chantha, Mr. Chakrya’s wife.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for rights group Licadho, one of the NGOs which instigated the first protest, said his organization still supported the idea but didn’t see it necessary to take to the streets.
“The Black Monday campaign doesn’t mean you have to march or rally,” Mr. Sam Ath said.
“We can wear black shirts in the office or house, then post to social media.”
But with no Black Monday protests since March, it looks like the movement that was causing so much controversy and filling column inches a year ago may have faded away for good.
Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, maintained that the protests had been illegal because they did not receive permission from City Hall, and said that in the end, the demonstrations had failed to gain traction or damage the government’s reputation because they had no legitimacy.
“It isn’t freedom of demonstration. It’s inciting the people,” he said. “We don’t want that. Not just the government—the people. We want peace and stability.”
He added that protesters needed to learn to pick their issues and tactics.
“Some issues, they can’t attract the people,” Mr. Siphan said. “With the protest, they went with black pajamas. They make people uneasy about the era of the Khmer Rouge.”
Borei Keila’s Ms. Sophin said she hoped the movement would be revived, but said it would require the stamp of approval from the families of the jailed rights workers and need to be spearheaded by the better-known Boeng Kak activists close to Ms. Vanny.
“We should join together in this Black Monday campaign but the Boeng Kak community should restart it because Tep Vanny is in prison. It’s better than our community starting it because we don’t have victims in jail,” Ms. Sophin said.
“I still want to continue but we need the support of the families,” she added.
But Bov Sorphea, a Boeng Kak activist, said she wasn’t sure whether Black Monday would be back because people were now scared of arrest.
“We’ve postponed [it] for a while…. I don’t know when the people will stop being scared,” she said. “They’ve arrested activists and summoned CNRP lawmakers. They’ve made us scared. They’ve used the court’s power to detain people.”
Ms. Sorphea said the activists would continue to post photos on social media and submit petitions to the international community and donor countries.
Almost a year on from the first Black Monday protest, Ms. Sorphea is pessimistic about what the campaign has achieved.
“We have done the campaign for a year but there is no result. We are hopeless. We have to find a new strategy,” she said. “We are not sure what the new strategy is. We need the support of the people.”
(Additional reporting by Chhorn Chansy and Michael Dickison)