Vying for the ‘Good Guy’ Title

Government, Opposition Square Off in Publicity Race After Crackdown

As television viewers in Cambodia and across the world watch police beat and chase demonstrators out of their protest sites this week, the government and the opposition have been fighting a verbal publicity war.

Such violent images may not win publicity points for the government, but its decision to disperse the protesters saved the country from international criticism, one government spokesman claimed. Khieu Kanharith implied that if the sit-in demonstration by the National Assembly was allowed to continue, greater unrest would have followed.

“We are aware of the concerns of our friends worldwide,” said Khieu Kanhar­ith,” and up to now we have had no condemnation. But if the situation got out of control then they will condemn us.

“If Cambodia was cut off from the international community then we would have no hope left.”

But public opinion at home is as important, if not more so, than the views of those abroad, claimed Lao Mong Hay, head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy. The government may well have acted swiftly to stop the slide into chaos, he said, but the way in which its orders were carried out has sullied the name of the ruling party.

“The CPP has not gained by this,” said Lao Mong Hay. “The government cannot do much now because it adopted a rigid stand in the crackdown. Some blood has been spilled.”

Attacks on monks has deepened resentment among the Cambodian people, he added, afraid that the crackdown would backfire.

“This is a hornets’ nest; instead of just one place called Democracy Square this could turn Phnom Penh into one big Democracy Square.”

Funcinpec, meanwhile, claimed the television foot­age was proof of the repressive tactics used by authorities in dispersing crowds and claimed those involved should be brought to book.

“The Cambodian people are enraged by the use of violence on pro-democracy demonstrators, and heartbroken by the use of violence on monks,” said Mu Sochua, parliamentarian-elect of Funcinpec.

The diplomatic community reacted cautiously to this week’s sporadic street violence, irking opposition leaders who hoped for international condemnation. They had hoped television pictures and pleas from protesters would bring a more sympathetic reaction from governments beyond the diplomats in Phnom Penh.

“I am sorry that some diplomats have not denounced this madness,” Mu Sochua said, “so we are appealing to the people of the world because we cannot count on the diplomatic community. They have kept silent for three days when the lives of people are in danger.”

However, one Western diplomat contended that the opposition, particularly Sam Rainsy, had played a part in instigating the chaos and should not not now start to cry wolf.

“One way to get some publicity is to provoke a crisis which is then relayed to the rest of the world via the media,” he said. “Sam Rainsy knows this; his strategy is to provoke, create a crisis, and turn it into a media show.”

The opposition should stop seeking attention and start behaving like true democrats and accept de­feat, he said.

“[Sam Rainsy] may have won the media war but legally he has lost the election,” he said.

An Interior Ministry official praised the action of police units this week. He said it had been uncertain whether the police could restore order at the sit-in protest site without violence erupting.

“We have concerns about the training and professionalism of our police; sometimes there is undisciplined behavior,” said the official, who asked not to be identified. “We are satisfied.”

One CPP official also insisted the police had shown restraint in dealing with the protesters. The mild reaction from diplomats in Phnom Penh showed that the police action was within legal limits, Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Wednesday.

Khieu Sopheak dismissed the violent footage as one-sided television journalism and said it would have little effect on world opinion.

“I have seen the material used by CNN and the BBC,” he said. “It is normal that they show the government doing bad things. They do the same in Northern Ireland, in South Korea, the camera always shows things to attract more viewers.”

Khieu Sopheak claimed that journalists never chose to show protesters attacking the authorities, whatever the situation.

“I do not care about this, the TV footage they use is their right,” he added.

But if the authorities make that decision to intervene then they should show restraint in their dealings with crowds, political analyst Kao Kim Hourn said Wednesday. At the same time the protesters should ensure the demonstration remains peaceful and within the spirit of the law. In this case, both parties went too far, he said.

“I think [the demonstrators] have crossed the line and so has the government. Each side has to restrain themselves, from provoking the police and the police reacting to them,” he said.

“They need to look at the collective good of society,” he added “I don’t think the continuation of the demonstrations is the best solution, but I don’t think the government’s reaction has been that good either.”

“Who has the right to say enough is enough and define the limit of freedom of expression?” said Funcinpec’s Mu Sochea, angry at what she described as a group of henchmen, headed by Hun Sen and National Police Director-General Hok Lundy, giving the orders. “In any other country [the people responsible] would be fined and told to step down, that’s why we can’t go into coalition with these people.”

Said the western diplomat, “In Europe, in the US, these demonstrations would have no importance whatsoever, nobody would take any notice of them.”

For some political analysts, talks, negotiations, discussions are the only way to stop the violence from continuing. Kao Kim Hourn thinks both sides should stop playing for points, and get down to the more serious issue of trying to form a government and find an end to the political crisis..

“Cambodia does not need any more negative publicity,” he said. “We’ve had more than enough over the last twenty years. It’s time to put things in perspective and get the political parties to work together.”

“You cannot arrest them all, they cannot put out the fire in the bodies of the protesters,” said Lao Mong Hay. “Only talks can put out those fires.”





Related Stories

Latest News

The Weekly DispatchA new weekly newsletter from The Cambodia Daily delivering news, analysis and opinion to your inbox. Published every Friday at 11:30am. Sign up today.