Five separate protests in Phnom Penh came to a crescendo Sunday in front of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s office building—the Peace Palace—with an estimated 50,000 protesters marching down Russian Boulevard and calling for the long-serving CPP leader to step down.
Now in their 15th straight day, the opposition CNRP’s demonstrations calling for fresh elections and the prime minister’s resignation have grown in strength this week, with Sunday’s march amounting to the largest protest against Mr. Hun Sen’s government in at least 15 years.
Four separate demonstrations, led by anti-eviction activists, civil servants, informal sector workers and monks, joined up with supporters of the opposition CNRP outside the Chinese Embassy on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard at 4:15 p.m. and marched together past Phsar Doeum Kor market, onto Russian Boulevard, past the Ministry of Defense, the Council of Ministers building and, finally, Mr. Hun Sen’s headquarters, before returning to Freedom Park.
The march, which lasted for about four hours and stretched for more than 3 kilometers, was devoid of almost any state security presence until the final stretch on Russian Boulevard, and remained peaceful throughout.
Scattered demonstrations were held throughout the day Sunday, with a group of about 300 Buddhist monks and protesters, led by the Venerable But Buntenh, marching from Freedom Park to the Ministry of Cults and Religion, where they arrived at about 8:30 a.m.
The monks, affiliated with the activist Independent Monks’ Network for Social Justice, blocked the same section of Sisowath Quay that they closed earlier this month when they besieged a meeting of senior clergy to demand a statement be released over the theft on December 10 of the country’s only Buddha relics from Odong mountain.
The monks this time called for Minister of Cults and Religion Min Khin to stand down over the failure of the government to act over the theft of the relics, modifying the “Hun Sen, get out!” chant that has pervaded recent opposition demonstrations to “Min Khin, get out!”
Just after 9:30 a.m., a representative of the ministry came out to receive a petition held by the monks, which calls for Mr. Khin to resign “without conditions within 14 days.”
“Recently, he has not paid attention to the loss of the Buddha relics, and did not take any action…to arrest the robbers to see them punished,” the petition states.
After making a stop to harangue officials at the Ministry of Education, the National Bank and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, the monks arrived at Wat Phnom after 11 a.m. There, they passed by a hodgepodge of other protests calling for—among other things—rises to the minimum wage, increased civil servant salaries, cheaper fuel, an end to land-grabs and for Mr. Hun Sen to stand down.
Among those groups were about 200 anti-eviction protesters, dressed in traditional white funeral attire and holding lotus flowers, who started their morning at about 8:30 a.m. with a march to City Hall, where they called for the resignation of Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong.
Arriving outside of Mr. Socheatvong’s office building shortly before 9 a.m., the protesters, who claimed to represent 28 communities in the city who have either been evicted or face eviction, called on the governor to either resolve their disputes or step down.
“I would like to ask Mr. Pa Socheatvong to stop violence against innocent people,” Song Srey Leap, a former resident of the Boeng Kak lake community, shouted through a loudspeaker mounted atop a tuk-tuk.
“We also ask him to step down from his position because he lacks ability,” Ms. Srey Leap added.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said the opposition rally numbered around 20,000 demonstrators, and had doubled in size from last Sunday’s rally as the opposition had trucked supporters in from provincial areas to take part.
On Saturday, the Council of Ministers issued a statement condemning the opposition’s demonstrations, which it said are in violation of the law, and “affects the peoples’ rights and livelihoods.”
“Particularly the flouting of nonviolent demonstration laws; blocking of municipal hall and the road; destroying public and private property, and hampering the operations of public institutions,” the Council of Ministers said in its list of complaints.
After leaving City Hall on Sunday morning, the anti-eviction protesters then marched past Freedom Park, where a few thousand CNRP supporters had already massed, and on to the nearby Council for the Development of Cambodia (CDC), where they called for foreign countries to halt development aid to Mr. Hun Sen’s government.
“We march today to send a message to Mr. Hun Sen to step down from his position because he is incapable of developing the country,” said Tep Vanny, another resident of the former Boeng Kak lake community, who said the CDC and aid donors were complicit in their evictions.
“We would like to condemn the donors because they conspired with the government to mistreat Cambodian people through development,” Ms. Vanny said.
In the afternoon, the monks gathered again, along with representatives of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association and the Cambodia Independent Civil Servant Association (CICA) at the Council of Ministers.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen must tell Mr. Sok Kong [the owner of Sokimex] to lower the price of petrol to 4,000 riel [about $1] per liter. If he does not, we will keep demonstrating every Sunday,” CICA adviser Phuon Sovann said over a loudspeaker.
“We want the government to increase the salary for civil servants to 2 million riel [about $500] per month so that they can live easily!” Mr. Sovann shouted.
Starting their own march at about 2 p.m., opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha headed south on Monivong Boulevard, before turning east on Mao Tse Toung and circling back via Russian Boulevard, returning more than four hours later to Freedom Park.
Standing in the bed of a pickup truck in the middle of the march, the opposition leaders were followed by Mam Sonando, the popular radio station owner and head of the Association of Democrats, who rode in an SUV.
Also trailing the CNRP president and vice president were Kem Monovithya and Rachel Sam, the daughters of Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy, who, sitting on the roof of another SUV, waved at the crowd and occasionally held their hands up in unison, a pose their fathers’ have made iconic.
Spread throughout the march, protest leaders, sat atop tuk-tuks and speaking over loudspeakers, led the demonstrators in chanting for a re-election and Mr. Hun Sen’s resignation. They also led a call-and-response chant in which they aired their grievances toward the prime minister.
“Who sold the land?” asked the chant leaders, to which protesters answered “Hun Sen.”
When the march arrived at the stretch of Russian Boulevard lined with government buildings, they fanned across both lanes of the street and adjacent gardens and, marching within meters of the Peace Palace’s gates, roared for Mr. Hun Sen to step aside.
A pair of military police officers armed with assault rifles stood outside Mr. Hun Sen’s office building, along with several municipal police, with at least a dozen heavily armed military police standing inside the gates and other security forces perched on the roof.
Returning back to the park well after sunset, Mr. Sokha addressed the crowd of tens of thousands of supporters packed into Freedom Park, calling on Mr. Hun Sen to face the people.
“He’s so cruel that people can no longer stand him,” Mr. Sokha said.
“We have enough people to remove him, but we sympathize with him and will let him think for a few more days,” Mr. Sokha said. “Don’t think that we are afraid. We’re not scared of dying, but of losing our nation,” he continued.
“We can go to Independence Monument, but we don’t want to,” Mr. Sokha said, in obvious reference to Mr. Hun Sen’s residence, adding: “So don’t worry. Sleep tight.”
(Reporting by Phorn Bopha, Aun Pheap, Mech Dara, Alex Willemyns and Colin Meyn)