Chea Bunra is an aspiring poet and an established protester. The 34-year-old is nervously waiting for his debut verse, “Ho Sok is Dead,” to premiere at one of Phnom Penh’s hottest poetry venues: a little gathering called “Democracy Square.”
Among the speeches and slogans, diatribes and denouncements outside the National Assembly, poetry has emerged as a staple in the eight-day-old demonstration.
“I think only poetry can attract attention of the people at this demonstration, because it is pleasant and has nice rhymes,” Chea Bunra said at the opposition sit-in, organized to protest alleged election fraud but turned into a general anti-government magnet.
Demonstration organizers say they have so far received some 80 poems from demonstrators and supporters. About 20 of those have been sent in from Cambodians in France. The verses—mostly anti-government and often calling for Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s resignation—are read over loudspeakers several times a day, protest organizers said.
“Poetry is very important in the Khmer tradition and culture,” said Hing Yoeurn, the demonstration’s deputy chief of information, who said the “mental entertainment” helps break up the long hours of the around-the-clock vigil.
Take this poem, read over the loudspeaker last week:
Nai! Loak Hun Sen
Amnach kdab nen
Tuk auy neak phseng
“Hey, Mr Hun Sen is in full power. Please step down quickly. Let others take over. They are definitely better people.”
It may lose some rhythm and rhyme along the way—and the Kandal farmers who Hing Yoeurn said sent in the poem might want to keep their day jobs. But the literary effort is part of the festive atmosphere at the protest camp, which has persisted, even grown in numbers, despite rain and the fear of violence.
Parliamentarian-elect Son Chhay said last week the verse and songs express democracy, Cambodian-style.
“The democracy movement in every country has a different style, based on the culture and tradition of that country,” said Son Chhay, who represents the Sam Rainsy Party. In this case, he said, Cambodians are tapping into a long Khmer tradition of singing and verse-writing.
Many of the protesters who submit poems want to read them by themselves, Hing Yoeurn said. But the organizers decided to let only officials read them, saying they are afraid emotional protesters might use inflammatory language.
Not that the political speeches and slogans at the protest have been subdued.
Handmade posters around the square often depict Hun Sen and other government officials as animals and puppets, and Sam Rainsy joked last week that the US should fire a missile into Hun Sen’s home and military compound.
Chea Bunra’s poem, when it is finally read, is also personal, and has little to do with the protest’s official election-fraud theme.
Instead, it accuses a high-ranking government official of murdering Interior Secretary of State Ho Sok in the aftermath of last year’s factional fighting.
“Ho Sok was tolerant, people supported him. But he was killed….The blind man who is grateful for this must step down from power,” goes one verse.
Also on stage at Democracy Square last week was a group of comedians—hired by protest organizers—who performed a short parody of Chinese films entitled “Judge Pao Chin.” The plot shows National Election Committee Chairman Chheng Phon stuffing ballot boxes to make sure the CPP wins. At the end of the play, a judge sentences the election official to be beheaded with a “mangy dog knife,” saying he has stolen the will of the people.