Biggest March Yet Sees Battering of Vietnam Monument
Up to 15,000 protesters turned out Sunday for the largest opposition demonstration in a solid week of rallies, filling the streets in a massive march that turned unruly at one point.
A crowd of anti-government protesters cheered and chanted anti-Vietnam slogans as students took a sledgehammer to the Cambodia-Vietnam Liberation Monument, smashing in the faces of the huge stone Vietnamese and Khmer soldiers. They later poured gasoline over the monument and set it afire.
At least one person was injured by falling pieces of stone and taken to a hospital with what appeared to be a broken nose.
“We destroy the Vietnamese statue because we don’t need the communists….We need to change to democracy,” shouted one of the hammer-wielding students. “We are hitting the communist yuon and the yuon puppet Hun Sen.”
The students were eventually persuaded to stop by protest leaders, and the demonstration continued peacefully.
The desecration prompted dismay and condemnation from diplomats and human rights workers.
One Asian diplomat said opposition leaders must control hot-headed protesters better, or the protests could end in violence.
“It can get out of hand. It’s already gotten a bit out of hand,” he said. “The police and all of them have been behaving pretty well. For the time being they retain cool heads. But what happens if they say enough is enough? That is our concern.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said authorities would not crack down on the ongoing demonstrations because it would be playing into the opposition’s hands. “This is what they wish—that there will be a clash between the demonstrators and the authorities. We have this in mind.”
Once the march reached the protest camp across from the National Assembly dubbed “Democracy Square,” its massive ranks thinned to a few thousand. But by early evening, the crowd had swelled back up to several thousand to hear speeches by opposition figure Sam Rainsy and others.
The march started at Olympic Stadium at about 8:30 am, heading down Monivong Boulevard to Sihanouk Boulevard on its way to the park.
Kem Sokha, an outgoing parliamentarian for the Son Sann Party with close ties to Sam Rainsy, made a public appeal for outside pressure on the government to meet demands for recounts and for Hun Sen to be denied the prime minister’s post in the next government.
“We appeal to the international community and to the King to hear our demands, which represent the will of about half a million citizens,” he said. “Don’t be afraid of Hun Sen and think only about him.”
Although the demonstrators are officially protesting alleged election fraud, many also vented anger against the government and especially Second Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has effectively been in power since 1985.
“I came and joined in this to demand Hun Sen’s resignation, that he step down from power,” said Sonn Chanphal, 49, a flower vendor, as she marched past the Independence Monument.
Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party have said they will refuse to form a coalition government with Hun Sen as prime minister. That sets up a prolonged constitutional crisis because the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority approval in the new parliament for any new government and there are no provisions for what happens if there is no agreement.
Khieu Kanharith, also the CPP spokesman, said Sunday that Hun Sen’s status was not negotiable: “Hun Sen will be prime minister in the next government,” he said, adding that the protests do not represent the wider view of the Cambodian people.
Pointing out that the opposition parties won two-thirds of the vote in the capital, Khieu Kanharith said, “It is not a surprise that in Phnom Penh they can organize large demonstrations…but Phnom Penh is not Cambodia.”
Sunday marked the beginning of the second week of protests against what the opposition says is a failure to seriously investigate election fraud complaints.
Protesters Sunday carried banners reading “Stop the cover-up” and “Our votes were stolen.”
Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party have claimed they lost the election, which was won by the CPP, through fraud. No hard evidence of cheating has come to light, but the refusal of the National Election Committee and Constitutional Council to hold more recounts has fueled suspicions.
Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party began a round-the-clock vigil across the street from the Assembly in protest. The sit-in, resembling a cross between a music festival and a small refugee camp, has drawn thousands.
The rallies have mostly been peaceful, though there have been some incidents, such as the beating of a foreigner who made anti-Prince Norodom Ranariddh remarks and Sunday’s monument desecration.
The statues are dedicated to the Vietnamese army’s 1979 liberation of Cambodia from the Khmer Rouge regime. But many Khmers resent Vietnam for occupying the country for the subsequent 10 years.
Municipal police stood by Sunday as students used paint to spray anti-Hun Sen slogans on the monument and pulled down the star representing Vietnam.
“We don’t know what to do about this. Let people vent their anger,” said one officer, adding that his orders were only to protect protesters.
Rally organizers came to the monument about 20 minutes into the mayhem and told the crowd to stop. “The demonstration is not about this…so please come down,” said Mu Sochea, parliamentarian-elect for Funcinpec.
The sit-in is expected to continue today. Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party offered Sunday to end the protests if the Constitutional Council adopts a more favorable seat allocation formula and orders recounts, revotes and an accounting of unused ballots.
On Saturday, Prince Ranariddh, appearing with Sam Rainsy, told a cheering crowd they were taking part in a “historical movement.”
“We are doing what is called ‘people power’ and from now on it will be a new and democratic tradition in Cambodia.” Later that evening, protesters held a candlelight vigil for peace.
(Reporting by Kay Johnson, Saing Soenthrith, Kimsan Chantara, Lor Chandara and Agence France-Presse)