Residents around Phnom Penh on Sunday expressed trepidation but an all round acceptance for the opposition CNRP’s plans both to hold a second three-day mass demonstration at Freedom Park and to march to foreign embassies throughout the city starting Wednesday.
About 20,000 people turned out to each day of the CNRP’s protest last month and the party has said it will now take its supporters through the streets of Phnom Penh to deliver a petition to the U.N. and at least seven foreign embassies calling for intervention to end the political standoff over the disputed results of the July 28 national election.
As riot police on Sunday ran through crowd control drills in Russei Keo district in preparation for enforcing City Hall’s prohibition of the planned marches, people around the capital said that although they are afraid of a harsh response from authorities, the CNRP’s second mass demonstration is necessary.
“I think the opposition’s decision is right but I think there could be problems again,” said Ream Khorn, 43, who was drinking at a coffee shop in Chamkar Mon district, referring to the clashes that broke out between authorities and protesters during the first round of opposition rallies held last month.
“I saw the authorities practicing near Wat Botum yesterday and I saw plenty of fire trucks coming into the city this morning, and I know those belong to the police,” he said. “Our people will not be afraid but they [the CPP government] have so many security forces to protect themselves and I know they will use them to protect interests and to protect their power.”
May Chouch, a 34-year-old a tuk-tuk driver, said that he too was afraid that police or military police could shoot at protesters if tensions rise and a situation gets out of hand.
“It could be like 1998 again because the opposition is asking for all the same things, and if the protesters do anything to the police, they will act swiftly,” he said.
During the aftermath of the 1998 national election, the country saw repeated government crackdowns on demonstrations against the disputed election results. The bodies of more than 18 demonstrators were found floating in rivers and in irrigation canals in the week following a particularly bad crackdown on September 7, 1998, the U.N.’s human rights envoy said at the time.
Despite his prediction of scenes similar to 1998, however, Mr. Chouch said that he still supported in principle the opposition’s decision to continue demonstrating.
“I think it’s good to keep demonstrating,” he said.
“Every country must have an opposition party. When they put the barricades up and do all this, they are only trying to stifle opposition to the government.”
Mr. Khorn, at the coffee shop in Chamkar Mon district, however, said that a repeat of 1998 was not possible.
“At that time, only a small number of international observers were around,” he said. “They would be scared to do today what they did then. Also now there are more people than before. They wouldn’t dare to do what they did before.”
A seller of packaged coffee at O’Russei market, who declined to give her name, said she was less sure that the international presence could ensure safety for those who decide to join the opposition demonstration.
“If authorities shoot them, what will the journalists and NGOs do?” she asked. “Will the NGOs arrest them if they shoot the CNRP? If there is a crackdown, will the U.S. and Japan help the opposition? If not, the CNRP could die here.”
The woman said that she had attended the first demonstration last month with her face covered for fear of retribution from any authorities who recognized her but she now planned to avoid the demonstration and marches this time.
“My nephew, a soldier, told me: ‘Please aunt, don’t go, this time they will allow them to strike them when they go to hand over the petitions,’” she said.
“If they’re mad, they will hit. It’s what their bosses have told them. This makes me hesitate [to attend],” she said.
Lon Ny, 60, said he agreed that violence was a likely outcome.
Mr. Ny said he had lived in Phnom Penh for three decades and had never seen the government take organized dissent on the streets of the capital city lightly.
“I’ve never seen demonstrations of this scale and I strongly believe they will use guns on the demonstrators this time. The government will not kneel down, they have the support of the Chinese after all,” he said.
During the CNRP’s last mass demonstrations held between September 15 and 17, small streets and boulevards in the city center were closed off by razor-wire barricades manned by military police. Authorities also prevented vehicles carrying large numbers of people from entering the city.
Residents expressed fury at the overbearing response by the police to the peaceful protests and a 29-year-old man was shot dead during clashes that broke out between authorities and stone-throwing protesters enraged by severe roadblocks around Monivong Bridge.
Sok Phanna, a 36-year-old mobile phone repairman, said that while he was apprehensive about violence breaking out, he thought authorities may have learned from the experience during the last demonstration.
“I think they might not close the roads this time because they had problems around Monivong Bridge and even here when people couldn’t get to their homes,” Mr. Phanna said. “They might be too scared to close off the roads this time.”
A police officer, who asked not be identified as he was not authorized to speak to the media, said that he was doubtful of any chaos breaking out.
“It won’t be violent because only one side has the threat of violence behind it,” he said.
“I’m really sick and tired of this,” he added. “The police constantly have to be prepared—especially now if there’s going to be that many people out there walking.”
Sitting nearby, Beang Rem, a 28-year-old vendor selling music from a computer hard drive, said that while he thought violence was likely, the CNRP had to keep reminding the government of people’s anger over the election.
“We are worried about the response of the authorities but we have no choice because we’re under their hand,” he said, adding that he was nevertheless fearful that opposition leaders could be using the demonstration to help their position in behind-the-scenes horse-trading with the CPP.
“It’s just politics. I saw an Excellency say on TV that when…King Sihamoni opened the National Assembly, [opposition leader] Sam Rainsy had already said they would accept the 55 seats,” he said.
“The big bosses fight publicly in this society but later clink glasses together while the little people have no idea what’s going on. This is the situation but we have no choice [other than to accept it]. This is the society we live in.”