It was another midnight deadline, another defiant crowd and yet another close call for the two-week-old protest outside the National Assembly.
Thirty minutes before the midnight deadline for soldiers to break up the sit-in, the tent city dubbed “Democracy Square” was quiet.
Five minutes earlier, loudspeakers had broadcast King Norodom Sihanouk’s call for a peaceful resolution. The demonstrators heard a third round of gunfire at the nearby Hotel Sofitel Cambodiana 15 minutes before.
But the loudspeaker and guns were silent at 11:30 pm. Many of the inhabitants of the protest camp were lying on their cots and mats as usual, though few were asleep.
“We will keep staying here,” said Chin Pok, 37, lying on a large mat with several friends. “We will not react. We won’t run. We will just lie here. We want democracy….I will sacrifice my life for this,” she said.
In the camp’s infirmary tent, a young monk was being treated for four gashes in his head he said were courtesy of police near the Cambodiana.
The monk, who did not give his name, said he was participating in the demonstration and approached what he thought were fellow demonstrators, but they attacked him, hit his head with a pistol butt, kicked and punched him before other demonstrators were able to get him away.
At midnight, the loudspeaker stirred back to life and Mu Sochua, Funcinpec parliamentarian-elect, spoke to the demonstrators as they waited. She said she had a message from Sam Rainsy, who has spearheaded the sit-in protest and was holed up at the Cambodiana Monday night as rumors swirled of his imminent arrest.
“Sam Rainsy regrets that he is not able to see you all,” Mu Sochua said, adding that no matter what happens, “We encourage you to keep up the demonstration and not leave the square.”
Twenty minutes later, Mu Sochua was on the loudspeaker again, this time to announce that the Ministry of Interior would not send in troops after all.
The mood relaxed almost instantly, with many relieved-looking protesters beginning to mill around. Asked what he felt on hearing the news, one protester murmured only “Sabbai.” Happy.
Chin Pok, the woman who vowed not to leave her mat, was not available for comment at about 12:30 am this morning. She was already asleep.
It was the end of another long, tense day at the opposition rally, set off by a grenade blast at Second Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nearby house and his subsequent vow to crack down on protesters. Counting down the hours, protesters angrily vowed in the afternoon to stay until Hun Sen steps down.
“I know Hun Sen will arrest Sam Rainsy tonight,” said Prum Sar, a 59-year-old Sam Rainsy supporter from Kampot province, adding that, “If Hun Sen kills Rainsy, we will kill him, too.”
Roth Sopheap, 57, a Sam Rainsy Party supporter from Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district, said the outspoken politician was being set up.
“The grenade attack was a pretext to crack down on opposition parties,” he said—a view that was shared by other demonstrators.
Passions ran high, sometimes bordering on riotous.
At about 4 pm, an angry crowd gathered at the northern fringe of the square where Sam Rainsy Party security people had detained a man who they suspected was linked to a recent spate of poisonings. They had found him outside a nearby pharmacy, offering tablets to bystanders, said Srey Yim Ly Bara, a security official for the Sam Rainsy Party.
Party agents had stripped the man of his shirt and belongings, including five yellow tablets. “We don’t know what the tablets are so we’re going to take them to the Ministry of Health to have experts check on them,” said Srey Yim Ly Bara. Sam Rainsy Party agents attempted to interrogate the man but he did not speak and burst out in tears.
Watching from behind a fence, the crowd urged the interrogators to kick and beat the man but Srey Yim Ly Bara handed him over to three UN human rights officials who drove him off in a UN vehicle. (Additional reporting by Kay Kimsong and Konstantin Richter.