On Thursday night, hundreds of protesters milled near the Faculty of Medicine on Monivong Boulevard, animatedly talking of a monk whose throat had been slit, other monks who had been severely beaten, and of bodies floating down the river.
One protester said he had heard the US or the UN would be sending in forces to maintain order. “If the UN doesn’t help Cambodia, everybody dies,” another protester in his 20s named Dara said with an intense look in his eyes. “I saw one dead monk but I cannot do anything.”
But no deaths were confirmed and minutes later, riot police converged on the area, sending protesters scrambling for cover. Those who remained soon found themselves shocked by electric batons and, in at least one case, surrounded by police and kicked.
The incident, like others this week, felt like it could quickly get out of control, and lead to bloodshed. But were these events as combustible as they seemed?
Military analysts say that the situation hasn’t become as volatile as it might seem on the ground. But they agree that a large loss of life could occur, if the government or protesters lose all sense of restraint.
And they agree that a political solution is needed to defuse the tension. “How long does this go on is the more interesting question,” said one military analyst.
Lakhan Mehrotra, the UN secretary-general’s personal representative to Cambodia, on Friday was trying to persuade the leaders of the CPP, Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy to meet with King Norodom Sihanouk in efforts to break a deadlock that threatens the formation of a new coalition government. But no agreement for talks in Siem Reap had been reached as of Friday evening.
The continued stalemate over allegations of election fraud and demands for Second Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down capped a tumultuous week that started with a grenade attack on Hun Sen’s Phnom Penh residence.
Hun Sen then cracked down on two-week-old Democracy Square and threatened to arrest opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
Tuesday afternoon, police dismantled the tent city, without warning during the sleepy lunch hour—just after a government official said the protest could go on.
By the end of the week, Sam Rainsy, fearing he could be arrested at any time, was essentially politically neutralized under the protection of the UN.
“If Rainsy felt it was safe or responsible to make public statements, you would be sure he would have a lot to say about the current situation,” a Sam Rainsy Party official said Friday afternoon. “However, under current circumstances, it is not possible for him to do any political work.”
But even without Sam Rainsy, protests continued, often erupting spontaneously in various parts of Phnom Penh. On Thursday afternoon, a Funcinpec lovefest, with motodops waving branches victoriously, paraded unabated for two hours through the city streets.
Several clashes occurred during the week and some demonstrators were wounded as police tried to maintain order. “Cambodia violence” again made international headlines. Rumors of dead and missing circulated wildly, but most could not be confirmed.
On Friday morning, pro-CPP supporters, many of them wielding bamboo sticks and guns, struck back in a counter-demonstration. After several people had been shot by suspected CPP supporters in civilian clothes, a rights worker was overheard saying on his phone: “If these people continue to walk around the streets, we will have many people dead.”
Yet a military analyst said he didn’t think the situation had gotten out of hand: “We’re not seeing what we saw in Indonesia.”
For one thing, he said, demonstrators are scattering when police arrive, rather than standing firm and risking bloody clashes. Secondly, “We don’t have the same underlying economic conflicts. Even 10,000 people making a demonstration means that there are 790,000 who aren’t.”
Most of the city is operating normally, he said, with little disruption to basic services. “We are not having any breakdown. What I’m seeing is a government that’s not sure how to handle this.”
Government officials maintained all week that the crackdown would be gradual, with as little force as possible. But spokesman Khieu Kanharith said on Thursday that there had been confusion and some police meant to be unarmed had been armed.
By the end of the week, some special undercover forces had been spotted. At least a few members from the highly trained Regiment 911 in Kambol west of the capital were seen Thursday.
The opposition blamed chaos on the streets to over-reaction by police. Authorities blame protesters who taunt, throw stones and otherwise create public disorder.
On Friday, a solution seemed far away. Mehrotra was pushing for talks between party leaders.
But, noted a Sam Rainsy Party official Friday afternoon: “Hun Sen was pushing for that kind of meeting last weekend, but the opposition refused because the legal and technical issues of the election should be discussed first. And we still believe they should.”
The key, he added, is pressure by the international community to hold Cambodian authorities to the electoral law. But besides appealing for peace, the international community was showing little sign this week that it would demand such an election review.