Wearing ties and white oxfords and surrounded by fellow student protesters outside the Royal Palace, Keo Hok Ly and Saro Sivutha are determined to succeed.
The pair, who met last week with European and US diplomats, say they will keep protesting the election results and premiership of Hun Sen, even if they miss classes.
The two students, leading some 3,000 student protesters, say they have a better chance now to achieve their aim than in similar protests seven years ago, when soldiers and police opened fire on demonstrators.
Their professors have taught them about their freedoms. They believe they are better educated. And the police and military cannot savagely repress them without bringing harsh international criticism onto the government.
But the students also realize that their chance may not be good enough to get them what they want—a change in the country’s leadership.
Keo Hok Ly, 23, a third-year law student who was one of five protest leaders to meet with European and US diplomats last week, expressed hope, but not confidence, that they would succeed. “Even this time if it is not successful, the next generation will stand up in the same way,” he declared Monday.
Students attribute their improved chances over 1991 demonstrations at the Faculty of Medicine students to the dissemination of democracy. Then, soldiers and police opened fire on rioters at the intersection of Pochentong and Monivong boulevards, killing at least five.
“In 1991, they attacked us because they were under the leadership of a communist government,” said Keo Hok Ly, who grew up fatherless in Kampot province. “Much of the police now know about democracy and liberty.”
Professors in the students’ respective faculties have also taught them their democratic rights, they said. Without such teaching, they would not have had the background to take to the streets, they said.
Students are leading demonstrations because they have been given the education to demand their rights, they said. “If our teachers didn’t teach us, we could not be here,” Saro Sivutha said.
Lao Mong Hay, director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said more organization, education and participation has helped the protesters in their cause: “They are better organized, [and have] participation from different universities and faculties. They have set clearer objectives.”
One driving force is the role played by Indonesian students earlier this year forcing longtime ruler Suharto to step down. Reports of the student revolts were featured prominently in the Khmer-language press, he said.
Living in urban areas and being exposed to college educations and international media has opened their eyes, Lao Mong Hay said: “They are exposed to new ideas, they are living in urban areas and they are more aware of the wrong doings.”
“I feel that the government takes their actions seriously,” he added. “I think perhaps they have made the authorities think seriously about ways of curbing the demonstrations altogether
….If they are allowed to go on, those demonstrations could further snowball, drawing in perhaps other sectors of society.”
Students said they will not go back to classes, set to begin on Sept 24, until they get what they want: a new election, or, at least, Hun Sen out of government.
They have also demanded coverage on state-run television, but a TVK official said Tuesday that the demonstrations would not be covered as long as the government considers them illegal.
Saro Sivutha, a slightly slouched but handsome 24-year-old business student from humble roots in Banteay Meanchey, said he believes the police have kept tabs on who is leading the demonstrations.
“Everyone knows me as the leader of the students,” he said, referring to security forces that he fears would target him for intimidation. “If the demonstration fails, my colleagues will be concerned for my life. But we will have no remorse.”
A Cambodian human rights official said Tuesday evening that he believes the student leaders have been targeted by police and that at least one is in danger.
“Yes, I can say that because we get information from our investigators that one of the student leaders disappeared after the demonstration in front of the Ministry of Information after the police broke it up,” the rights official said.
In addition, two monks who were demonstrating were beaten by police and dragged away during the police operation, the official said.
Information Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith, observing the student demonstrations outside his ministry late Monday, said both the students and monks were out of line. “They shouldn’t be here,” he said, backed by 15 armed men who were there for “intimidation” purposes.
But he expressed confidence the students and monks would disperse on their own. “They are breaking Buddhist precepts and law; they should not be out after dark. They are supposed to stay at the pagoda at night. Also, they are not allowed to get involved in politics.”
But the students said they are neutral and would not be protesting the premiership of Hun Sen if they felt he benefited Cambodia. “We worry about the fate of the country,” Saro Sivutha said.
Asked who would make an acceptable prime minister, Saro Sivutha, Keo Hok Ly and a group of friends listed names in the following order: Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng; National Assembly President Chea Sim; deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh; and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Chris Decherd)