In the most violent public action against the opposition since the 1998 post-election upheaval, Sam Rainsy critics filling two trucks burned tires Sunday morning in front of the party leader’s Phnom Penh residence and broke several windows with rocks hurled from the street.
The concrete stupa memorial erected last month by Sam Rainsy in front of the National Assembly to honor those killed at the site in a 1997 grenade attack was also knocked down Sunday morning.
Shortly before 9 am at least two truckloads of men chanting “Sam Rainsy is a traitor” drove away from the area of the party leader’s house on Street 240, leaving behind them a bonfire of melting rubber, shattered plastic chairs, and spray-painted grafitti on the brick wall outside the residence.
Inside the compound, Sam Rainsy supporters hurried back and forth over a courtyard littered with stones and pieces of broken brick. Windows in the front rooms of the house had been smashed by rock-throwing demonstrators.
“Before they burned the tires they threatened to burn the house, but they could not get inside,” security guard Proeng Sok Lim said minutes after the attack. He said he shut the gate as the protesters rushed the house.
Opposition party lawmaker Cheam Channy said he escaped a beating and saved his car from fire by driving away from Sam Rainsy’s residence.
The actions occurred as Sam Rainsy himself led a march against government corruption and incompetence across town.
Several hundred people followed him through the streets, stopping at Independence Monument for almost an hour of speech-making before walking down Norodom Boulevard to Wat Phnom.
Along the road, the crowd sang “The Khmer image can be noble if we unite” and other nationalistic lyrics.
At Wat Phnom the protest dissolved, but not until after several near-clashes with an opposing group of about 100 counter-demonstrators. The groups exchanged verbal jabs, with each group accusing the other of being undemocratic before being separated by military police and municipal authorities.
Three cyclo drivers provided high-decibel heckling of the march, blasting the Sam Rainsy demonstrators with loud music from speakers carried on their cyclos at the tail end of the procession. When questioned, the drivers said they had been paid 10,000 riel to carry the speakers and try to disrupt the march.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara released a statement Sunday afternoon apologizing for the disruption caused by the unauthorized counter-demonstrations.
“The municipality is very sorry for the event, which is contrary to the law about demonstration,” he said in the statement.
The Sam Rainsy Party also held smaller demonstrations outside the French Embassy and the National Assembly, where the stupa was again smashed.
The stupa, which was thrown in the Tonle Sap shortly after being put up last month but later reinstalled at the sidewalk outside the National Assembly, has become for some an uncomfortable symbol of Sam Rainsy’s resilience.
Onlookers said the same men who damaged Sam Rainsy’s house—said by some opposition supporters to be former party members from Kompong Thom—were also responsible for destroying the stupa.
“I don’t know who those men were,” Sam Rainsy said, though in the past it was not uncommon for people identifying themselves as expelled party members to gather their own supporters to criticize Sam Rainsy.
The opposition leader has become increasingly vocal in recent months, involving himself heavily in land-grabbing and labor issues.
In an unusual show of support, Sam Rainsy recently publicly congratulated Prime Minister Hun Sen for his promise to begin dealing with land-grabbing by powerful public officials.
Prior to Sunday’s march, Sam Rainsy had most recently led several hundred motorcycle taxi drivers and displaced farmers against the French Embassy to protest rising gasoline costs.
Though a larger demonstration is planned for today, as garment workers march on Labor Day to protest working conditions and wages, Sam Rainsy said he was not going to take part.
“Today was a political demonstration, it’s more general than the labor issues,” Sam Rainsy said.
“I support the laborers but I cannot, I should not be in every demonstration,” he said.
Sunday’s events followed several smaller impromptu marches last week by workers from several city garment factories that many saw as a build-up to today’s expected protest.