Midnight Meeting Averts Crackdown

But Demonstrators, Gov’t Still at Odds

A major confrontation between the government and opposition leaders staging a sit-in in front of the National Assembly was avoided after a late-night meeting brokered by the UN.

A Ministry of Interior official pledged shortly after midnight to hold off on taking any action against the hundreds of demonstrators camped out in a tent city.

“I promise now tonight is a peaceful night even for demonstrators, even though those people violate the law and abuse [their] permission,” said Prum Sokha, the ministry’s director-general of administration.

Tensions were defused after a 30-minute meeting with opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Funcinpec parliamentarian-elect Mu Sochua in the office of the UN secretary-general’s special representative, Lakhan Mehrotra. Mehrotra arranged the meeting, which began at 11:30 pm, but did not attend, letting the parties work it out for themselves.

Prum Sokha told reporters he came to an agreement with Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua that the two parties would re-apply for licenses for the sit-in. He said he wants the protesters to move away from the National Assembly, citing security reasons, and suggested the Olympic Stadium instead.

Sam Rainsy said after the meeting the protesters would move off the streets and sidewalks, but that he had to consult with Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh today before the opposition decided whether to move from the site.

Earlier in the evening and through much of the day, opposition leaders were expecting a clash with government forces after being told they should disperse immediately.

Sam Rainsy vowed to remain peacefully in place.

“We are not going to give in to any threat…otherwise we will remain slaves all of our lives,” Sam Rainsy told a press conference at 10:30 pm.

Mu Sochua said an hour earlier that she and Sam Rainsy were told by Prum Sokha the protest was illegal and “the [government] would enforce the law.”

Both sides met at the Ministry of Interior at the request of Mehrotra’s request, she said.

Mehrotra said earlier in the day that he was “promoting dialogue” in an effort to “bring peace and democracy and national reconciliation in Cambodia.”

But Mu Sochua said the dialogue was all one way, and Prum Sokha was not in the mood for compromise.

Sam Rainsy said he was prepared to give demonstrators the choice of whether to stay, but warned that many would camp out for as long as necessary to protest alleged irregularities over last month’s elections, which were won by the CPP.

“We have to do this because we don’t have any other alternatives,” he said.

Mu Sochua said the opposition would ask the Ministry of Interior for permission to demonstrate at the park until Sept 24, when the mandate for the current government ends.

She vowed passive resistance if forces come to remove protesters. “We will really respect the concept of a sit-in. Tomorrow we will really be sitting down,” she said.

Political tension surrounding the sit-in increased Tuesday as the tent city grew in both population and size. At its peak, several thousand had gathered.

Tioulong Saumura, Sam Rainsy’s wife and a member of the party’s steering committee, faxed a request to Mehrotra Tuesday night requesting 24-hour monitoring by the UN’s human rights office. She cited rumors that the government planned to kill or injure Sam Rainsy in the near future.

National Police Director-General Hok Lundy said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon the vigil was illegal, and said plans and equipment were ready to break up the tent city if the protesters threatened public property.

Responding to a vitriolic speech made Monday night when Sam Rainsy asked soldiers to shoot their bosses instead of demonstrators if ordered to do so, Hok Lundy said the government would never make such an order. But other kinds of force may be used, he warned.

“It is an illegal demonstration….If [demonstrators] destroy public property, the police will crack down on them by using water trucks or electrical shock clubs as other countries do,” Hok Lundy said.

The Ministry of Interior approved a demonstration and march for Monday, but not beyond that date. Sam Rainsy Party spokesmen said Monday they did not intend to seek approval for the sit-in because it is a public area.

However, Sothearos Boulevard in front of the National Assembly remained blocked off with banners, cyclos and demonstrators.

An Asian diplomat expressed concern that violence may break out.

“Some people are saying that the endgame is to push each other until finally there is a compromise,” the diplomat said. “But what happens if they push each other too much and someone takes the law into their own hands?”

Prince Ranariddh, in a speech at about 9:30 am, called the demonstration historical, and later called on King Norodom Sihanouk to create an interim government if a coalition cannot be formed before Sept 24, when the current government’s mandate ends.

“Hun Sen cannot be allowed to reconduct the same government beyond the deadline,” he said, speaking to reporters afterwards.

After Prince Ranariddh’s speech, Sam Rainsy walked around the park collecting donations and reaching out to touch the hands of supporters.

Later, standing on a truck, a steady flow of contributors handed up money, rice, bottled water and loaves of bread to Sam Rainsy as they responded to his call for donations.

“They [CPP leaders] are all stupid and illiterate. They did not finish primary school. I think the CPP has more clever and knowledgeable members, and they will remove Hun Sen soon,” he said.

Sam Rainsy spoke on and off all morning as listeners huddled under tarps or trees, looking for relief from the harsh sun. Many stood on the seats of their motorcycles and listened to speeches from the park as he launched tirades against the ruling party and suggested the US help oust Hun Sen.

The US should send special forces to arrest Hun Sen as they did with former Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, Sam Rainsy said.

“Why doesn’t America dispatch its special planes equipped with laser-guided missiles to strike [military base] Toul Kasaing?” he said.

Prince Ranariddh, in his speech earlier, also referred to US support.

“When I was away, I met American congressmen who urged Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy to remain strong and they will help,” he said.

Hok Lundy, also one of Rainsy’s favorite targets in his speeches, said the opposition leader was a politician “without virtue or respect.”

“[Sam Rainsy] has always cursed me. I cannot understand that. I have never been a foe to him. We are not enemies with him at all,” Hok Lundy said.

Meanwhile, a Norwegian national who was attacked by an opposition mob Monday near the National Assembly after distributing leaflets attacking Prince Ranariddh for pro-Muslim sympathies, appeared on National TV to denounce the opposition.

While the demonstration wasn’t covered at all by the pro-government media, Gerard Be Le, was on TV news programs Monday and Tuesday saying Rainsy was not a true democrat because his supporters attacked him for handing out leaflets.

(Additional reporting by Kay Johnson, Van Roeun, Chris Decherd and Jeff Smith)



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