Reporter Faced a Choice: To Join Protests or to Cover Them

Jan 29, 2003 was just a simple day. But it became the day re­­membered as the time Cam­bo­dia stood up to show its nationalism.

I heard many rumors a Thai television star had claimed that Thai­land owned Cam­bo­dia’s Ang­kor Wat temple. It was terrible to learn that another nationality was demanding my heritage, and I was happy when students gathered to protest the actress who said those shameful words.

I am Cambodian, with Khmer blood, and I too wanted to protest.

The day before the riots, my friends studying in universities gave me a picture of the Thai actress, with vulgar words written on it. But I wasn’t the only one who re­ceived the picture. Draw­ings of the actress’ head attached to an ani­­mal’s body were distributed throughout the capital and into the provinces.

Prime Minister Hun Sen even gave a speech in Kompong Cham pro­vince about the rumor. He de­clared: “The life of ‘Morning Star’ or ‘Thief Star’ is not equal to a few bushes of grass near Ang­kor Wat.”

Cambodians from every end of the country were talking about why Suvanant Kongying made such a claim. I was among them. The rumor and its effect on the country became a vital top­ic for my news reporting.

On the morning of Jan 29, I drove my Hon­da Love motor­­bike with Kate Wood­some, a foreign re­porter at The Cam­bodia Daily. We went around the city following the crowd, but had no idea that the small protest would turn into a riot.

Hundreds of students riding motorbikes drove around Phnom Penh carrying Cambo­dian flags. Most of the students ended up in front of the Thai Embassy on Norodom Boulevard.

As we continued to cover the story, I saw that the protest was turning violent. Students lit a Thai flag on fire in front of the embassy.

I’m scared to lose my identity. I’m scared that other countries will take our land and rename it, so that the next young generation will have no land to live on. We need to protect our country.

But my job is to report on what is going on. I have to inform the people. So when I saw that 1,000 other students had become dem­onstrators, I let them protest, and I did my job.

I was in front of the Thai Embas­sy until intervention police arrived around 8 pm to break the mob. Although the police stopped the action, they could not undo what had already been done. We proved that Cambodia will do anything to protect its culture, heritage and customs from another country’s invasion.

Horrible damage was done to the Thai Embassy and Thai-owned businesses. But hundreds of innocent students were arrested by police. Some of them were charged with inciting and de­stroying Thai properties.

I knew students did not do this. Students are educated people who would not destroy property. They would just assemble peace­fully.

On the evening of Jan 29, a friend of mine phoned to tell me that a few young Cambodian-Vietnamese boys who were not students had climbed into the Thai Embassy compound intending to destroy it.

I knew then that someone powerful had organized the riots. Other students share my opinion—that those boys were hired by high-ranking officials.

Police just looked around and didn’t say anything about the damage. When almost half of the embassy and other businesses had burned, the police finally shot a few rounds off their AK-47s into the air to stop the boys.

I thought it was very good that the students were able to demonstrate without the government using military police to stop them. But my concern is that I have seen many other demonstrations broken by the government and military police.

When they do this, they want to show other countries that Cam­bodia doesn’t have demonstrations or disorder. They want to show other countries that Cambo­dia is peaceful. But that’s not exactly true.

I am not a nationalist. I just want to be able to say what I want to say. The government should give more chances to the people and the students to express their opinions. The government should allow the people to make a roundtable to stand up and speak out.

If the government doesn’t like my opinion, they can ignore it. But if they care about my opinion, they can consider it and take my idea to make change.


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