The squat toilet held the urine of 10 prisoners and smelled of poor diet and sickness.
It would have smelled worse had the same person that cleaned it each day not slept beside it each night. Ken Sara silently scrubbed the basin of its waste, listening to sermons about life inside Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison for half of his nearly seven-month internment.
He was advised to stop marking time. He was told the government preferred him a forgotten man.
Faculty of Law and Economics student Ken Sara became his own case study Feb 6 when he says a man on a motorbike stopped him by the side of the road and advised him to head down to the police station.
Someone needed his $2,000 back, Ken Sara claims the man said. But the 24 year-old hadn’t borrowed any money, and was denied an arrest warrant when he asked for one.
Minutes later, Ken Sara says four unidentified men pushed him into an unmarked Toyota Camry and accused him of instigating the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots that engulfed Phnom Penh in a fit of nationalistic fury.
“They pulled my shirt over my head like a blindfold and tied my hands behind my back,” Ken Sara remembered a day after his Sept 23 release from prison.
Rising from a blue plastic chair in the Students’ Movement for Democracy headquarters in Phnom Penh, the political activist unbuttoned his shirt and wrapped it around his eyes. Pantomiming his bondage, Ken Sara crouched on his haunches with his back to the wall.
“We drove somewhere I couldn’t see, and they kept me in a very small place for hours, telling me to admit my crimes. They cocked a gun several times to scare me, and I cried for them to treat me like their son,” he said.
At mid-morning on Jan 29, university and high school students mixed with members of the pro-government Pagoda Boys Association in a mob of motorized demonstrators.
Goaded by nationalistic comments Prime Minister Hun Sen had made two days before, and cartoons depicting snakes slithering from a Thai actress—the same actress that had been falsely reported to say that Cambodia stole Angkor Wat from Thailand—malcontents caused more than $50 million in damages to Thai properties from the afternoon until late into the night.
Rioters torched the Thai flag, and then the embassy. The Royal Phnom Penh Hotel was destroyed, and the Cambodia Shinawatra mobile phone company became a shattered hive of disconnected numbers.
Ken Sara said last month that he witnessed much of the rioting first hand, but was an “innocent bystander,” not a participant.
The Interior Ministry assigned Municipal Deputy Police Chief Heng Pov to collect the guilty, and police rounded up more than 150 suspects over the course of a week. Few warrants were issued.
Rush hour traffic crowded Phnom Penh’s streets the evening of Feb 6, as Ken Sara was driven to the office of Heng Pov, who moonlights as a third-year Faculty of Law student.
The two men had spoken earlier in the day about a campaign they were separately running for the same student leadership position, Ken Sara claims. Heng Pov wanted him out of the race, Ken Sara says, and offered money for his opponent’s endorsement.
Former Students’ Movement president Um Sam An, who abandoned his post to join the Sam Rainsy Party, said Heng Pov sought office to tighten his grip over the courts’ future lawyers and judges.
But Heng Pov, the former deputy general of the Phnom Penh anti-drug police, denies knowing or bribing Ken Sara.
“I never meet him. I never talk with him. I never know him,” he said last month. “Why I had conflict with him? I never. I pity on him.”
Heng Pov says he accepted the position of chief of students out of respect for his supporters.
“Many professors and students requested me to join the election. Companies like me and gave me cement, so I used it to pave a sidewalk at the Faculty,” he said, limping across his carpeted, air-conditioned office.
The limp was earned in a shoot out, the well-furnished office from donations private banks and garment factories made to “pay for anti-robbery” efforts.
Heng Pov claims to not remember anything about Jan 29 or the subsequent arrests he ordered, although Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak says Heng Pov is the man responsible for remembering.
At Prey Sar, Ken Sara spoke through tears for the first two months in jail, until he followed advice to stop counting the days. The passage of unmarked time stole memories of faces and names important to Ken Sara, and the young man thought only of death.
“I told the guards to get me a toxic drink if I had to stay in jail forever,” he said.
Suicide, or thoughts of it, was not uncommon in Prey Sar. Ken Sara dealt with his depression in silence, while others chanted or sang or banged pots on the prison bars.
“The person that made noise was endurable to punishment because when they made the noise, they were beaten. But they still made noise tomorrow,” he said.
Safety was purchased from cell mates and guards with bribes of food or money, faithfully delivered by Ken Sara’s mother. Prisoners without funds, or beautiful newcomers, quickly fell prey to sexual predators.
Money meant power. Men arrested for lucrative corruption schemes enjoyed beer, fans and television. Men seized for petty crimes knew 20 minutes of sunlight per day, bare walls and abuse.
The rich spoke of money, the thieves of technique. Other prisoners, who devised endless schemes to rule or cheat the government, took an interest in Ken Sara.
“Some big politicians in the prison wanted me to leave with them and work to serve the country together,” he said. “The old politicians said only the young could make change.”
Former Khmer Rouge commander Sam Bith and a Cambodian Freedom Fighter often approached Ken Sara in the prison yard after deeming him a strong candidate for political office, he said.
Sam Bith, arrested for ordering the 1994 kidnapping and murder of three Western backpackers, was sentenced to life imprisonment in December 2002 as a 70-year-old. Nineteen members of the Cambodian-American CFF group were incarcerated in 2000 for their part in a failed attempt to topple Hun Sen.
“They talked much about the current government, calling it communist and dictatorial,” Ken Sara said. He declined to join them in their bid to rule the country, but he took some of their advice.
If you have to play with politics, you have to be brave, because death is always near, they taught him. Ken Sara admits that before his incarceration, he was an influential playboy, not a polished statesman.
“Before I enjoyed drinking and dancing. But now I have to be careful for my security and worry if someone is really who they say they are,” he said. “My personality changed since leaving prison, because now I feel like an important actor.”
Ken Sara, the youngest son of a barber and a petroleum street vendor, has collected followers with his generosity and iron fist. He has gathered money for students unable to pay for classes, and muscle for men too weak to fight their own battles.
“During our first year at the Faculty, we were called to recover a moto that had been stolen from a friend. Many of us showed up for a fight, but when the thieves took out knives, Ken Sara and I were the last ones standing,” remembered Taing Sarada, a Students’ Movement member and a friend of Ken Sara.
In the classroom, Ken Sara earned the nickname “Bazou,” the name of an English-language song affectionately loathed by students at the time.
The nickname and approachability worked in favor of the unlikely leader, who employed the same strategy he used on the streets to gain followers at school. Ken Sara soon was named master of his classroom, a position offered to students with the know-how to respond to classmates’ demands.
“We had a plan to make Bazou chief of students. He would be smart with students during the day, and I would make friends at night,” Taing Sarada said, piecing together drunken episodes spent schmoozing with friends and potential supporters.
Institutional corruption had to be eliminated, Ken Sara said. Political bribes earned far too many unqualified men posts within the government, and the same practices were sullying the Faculty of Law, he decided.
Ken Sara stood on a platform of democracy and territorial integrity. Border encroachment by Thailand or Vietnam could not be tolerated. Illegal immigration and the abuse of Cambodians by foreign border patrols had to stop.
“My election platform made people scared of me as leader because the propaganda would be opposed to the current government,” Ken Sara said.
His manifesto echoed a mantra offered five years before by the founders of the Students’ Movement for Democracy, which participated in the large protests that took place in front of the Assembly and the Information Ministry in the months after the July 1998 election.
Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh agreed to negotiate with Hun Sen on the formation of a government after weeks of unrest. Members of the “Students for Democracy” returned home, only after planting the roots of today’s Students’ Movement for Democracy.
Anti-Vietnamese sentiment and a distaste for Thai condescension deeply defines the Students’ Movement dogma, which considers the CPP government an offshoot of the Vietnamese occupation of the 1980s.
But violence and racism are not part of the group’s plan, Um Sam An says, which he says explains why Ken Sara cannot be guilty of stoking the violent Jan 29 riots.
Arrested without a warrant, detained longer than six months before his trial and convicted, without substantial evidence, of inciting violence and illegally demonstrating, Ken Sara’s case has been cause for concern among human rights groups.
UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spokeswoman Saku Akmeemana has said aspects of Ken Sara’s case are worrying.
“In the course of the office’s monitoring work, we have regularly raised concerns with the courts over excessive pre-trial detention,” she said. “This includes the cases of those who remained in detention over the January riots.”
US and Thai government officials have urged the Cambodian government to unveil the riot’s real mastermind, and local human rights group Licadho has called Ken Sara a government “scapegoat.”
King Norodom Sihanouk sided with Ken Sara and Thorn Veasna, another student convicted of inciting racism, granting the pair amnesty for an early release from prison.
The international attention and royal treatment bode well for a budding politician and the future of the Students’ Movement, Um Sam An said.
“I thought our movement was lost from history,” he said. “But when Ken Sara appeared, I think our movement will happen again.”