As authorities threatened to crack down on opposition protests Monday, student-led demonstrators staged a sit-in at the Information Ministry, narrowly avoiding a clash with intervention police in riot gear.
Despite a midnight deadline to clear the streets, which was called off at the last minute, protesters vowed to remain at the ministry until their demands were met. Police fired a warning shot in the air just before 11 pm, and another volley at 11:30 pm.
The standoff came early Monday afternoon, after hundreds of protesters marched from the Royal Palace to the Information Ministry Monday morning, demanding state media coverage of their demonstrations.
When demands to meet with top ministry officials were ignored, the students threatened to burn a pile of car tires in front of the ministry’s gates on Monivong Boulevard. The threat prompted Military Police guarding the gate to call in three trucks of intervention police carrying shields and electric batons.
Police cocked their weapons and pointed them at demonstrators. Protesters at first scattered in panic, then monks lined up across Monivong with arms linked to face them down. Students joined them, waving Buddhist and Cambodian flags, and after several tense minutes, police finally lowered their weapons, and then departed.
“We wanted to stop them [from burning tires],” said a police commander. “If they don’t do anything we will turn back.”
But a senior intervention police commander said late Monday afternoon that the protesters would be dispersed by midnight if they did not leave.
“We are ready and on 24-hour standby,” he said. “We have no plan right now but tonight we will crack down on all demonstrators. We are waiting for orders from [National Police Director-General] Hok Lundy.”
The student-led demonstrations entered their sixth day on Monday. Marchers have protested in front of the Japanese and French embassies, which have supported the July 26 elections, and the Information Ministry.
Television stations have downplayed the protests, and students have demanded coverage on state-run television and radio.
On Monday afternoon the large crowd of monks, students, moto-taxi drivers and drink vendors settled in around the ministry’s gates. Monks sat under umbrellas in front of the gate, while parked nearby were trucks with loudspeakers, signs, and an effigy of Second Prime Minister Hun Sen with bloody hands.
One of the monks, 20-year-old Heng Huon, said he was willing to sleep in front of the ministry until Information Minister Ieng Mouly came and talked to the protesters. “I am not afraid.”
Ieng Mouly could not be reached for comment. The deputy director of state-run TVK, Mao Aryuth, said Monday no officials would meet the protesters because the demonstration was illegal.
By early evening students had cordoned off the block and were searching those coming in. The crowd had dwindled considerably, but other students said they would end their sit-in only if Hun Sen stepped down. “We want peace and democracy,” said 20-year-old Soun Sarith, a Faculty of Medicine student. “People accused him of all kinds of things,” said one human rights worker who witnessed the scene. “This is a situation that can get very dangerous.”
Yet officials were hopeful that the sit-in would remain generally peaceful. “There’s lots of anger in Cambodia after 20 years of conflict,” Funcinpec’s Mu Sochua said in the late afternoon. “But when we appealed to the crowd yesterday the anger inside was well-controlled.”