Some Say Basic Freedoms Have Been Lost in Name of Political Stability

Politics. It had to be politics that started the protests on a clear blue Wednesday morning last year that led to that evening’s anti-Thai riots, university students said between classes this week.

A year after hundreds of youths zipped around the city on motorbikes in a fit of nationalistic fury, students say they still wonder who let them run uncontrolled.

“I think the government did not incite the riots. But they gave the chance to the students. Otherwise the riot would not happen,” said Ma Ra, a Royal University of Phnom Penh student. “If the parents don’t let their children go, the children don’t go.”

Though students today widely claim they are not responsible for the burning of the Thai Embassy, or the ravaging of Thai-owned businesses, it was a group of young intellectuals who started the wave of violence and destruction.

Throughout the day, students torched tires and the Thai flag, spitting on the smoldering banner outside the Thai Embassy.

Students later ripped up promotions for Thai products and screamed, “Learn your culture, Siam bitch!” referring to Thai actress Suvanant Kongying.

But by the time the embassy and several Thai businesses were in ruins, students say, the mob consisted of gangsters.

“The students that went to the Thai Embassy never fought. They went home, and someone else destroyed it,” said Chea Ven, 23, a Norton University student.

The day after the riots, Hun Sen blamed the destruction on a small group of ex­tremists who, he said, exaggerated rumors that the Cambodian Em­bassy in Bangkok was de­stroyed and some officials were killed.

“The violence by the extremists caused political instability for Cambodia…. They turned the personal and cultural conflict into a conflict of race and country,” Hun Sen stated on television and radio.

Days after the riots, 150 suspects were rounded up, many of whom were later released for lack of evidence. Fifty-eight people faced various charges, including robbery, larceny, destruction of public property and taking part in an illegal demonstration. Of those, 56 were convicted of participating in the riots. Two were acquitted.

Um Sam An, former president of the Students’ Movement for Democracy, said he believes the ruling CPP planned the riots to bolster the party’s popularity during an election year and to silence voices of dissent.

“The CPP wanted to weaken their enemies, so they organized the riots to arrest all the nationalists and democrats, especially concentrating on the Sam Rainsy Party,” Um Sam An said.

But CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith rejected the theory, saying Wednesday the government would not waste unnecessary time organizing a popularity campaign.

“We knew that we would win the election already,” he said. “I don’t think that [the riot] is the work of the government.”

Among those arrested and jailed after the riots was Mam Sonan­do, whose Bee­hive Radio station routinely airs criticism of Hun Sen and his government. Mam So­nan­do was charged with broadcasting false information and inciting violence and was later released.

Two university students—Ken Sara, 24, and Thorn Veasna, 19— spent nearly seven months in jail until King Norodom Sihanouk granted them amnesty in Sep­tember. The two have said they were innocent pawns in a political game they cannot understand.

The government also laid partial responsibility for the riots’ uncontrolled nature on former Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara. Op­po­sition party members speculate that Chea Sophara was sacked because he became too popular.

Regardless of who was re­spon­si­ble for the riots, the students’ mas­­sive show of force on Jan 29, 2003, was reflective of a societal hunger for change that is pulsing, but controlled, in most Cambo­dians, said Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development.

“It’s like a volcano that is about to erupt, to explode,” Chea Van­nath said. “Any element can cause the eruption because the level of frustration is so high.”

But a history of trauma and, now, the government’s firm social control has driven the possibility of action into dormancy, she said.

“The people have been traumatized so many times. The government themselves is traumatized too. But now, the liberator has become the oppressor,” she said.

A day after the riots, the prime minister appealed for control. “I would like to plead to our people to stay quiet about this event and keep the political stability, security and social order,” Hun Sen said.

Since then, the government has tightened its grip over free speech and assembly. An un­written ban on peaceful assemblies, marches and demonstrations has prevented nearly all large gatherings, except those supporting the CPP.

Since last January, dozens of factory worker strikes have been stopped by heavily armed police. Hun­dreds of police thwarted a small anti-Jan 7 rally planned by the Khmer Front Party. And re­peat­ed appeals to hold an An­ti-Cor­ruption Day ceremony were rejected for the first time in years.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak has said the ban is a means to ensure national security and diffuse political unrest.

Chea Vannath said the anti-Thai riots, like the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, have served as an excuse for the government to tighten its grip over the people.

“Sept 11 served as a scapegoat to reduce rights allowed by the US Constitution,” she said. “Locally, the Thai riot is a reason to restrict even more rights as a citizen.”

Following the Sept 11 terror attacks, the US Congress passed the Patriot Act, allowing government agencies to carry out surveillance of religious, civic or political organizations, even when there is no suspicion of wrongdoing.

Khieu Kanharith said Wednes­day that the government does not use the riots as an excuse to crack down on dissent. He also insisted that the CPP government does not ban assemblies. “We allow the demonstrations. They can demonstrate on the fixed area or on the campus,” he said.

But some students say Cam­bodia has become too dangerous a place to talk politics. “Even be­fore the anti-Thai riots—in the past three or four years—it is very dangerous to talk,” said Norton Uni­versity law student Sales Sovanara. “I don’t want to care about politics. Be­cause if we care about politics, it is dangerous to our body.”



Related Stories

Latest News