The SRP and anti-eviction activists yesterday released thousands of balloons from locations around the city calling on visiting U.S. President Barack Obama to help strengthen democracy and end land-grabbing in Cambodia.
In one corner of a dusty, deserted courtyard at the former SRP headquarters on Sothearos Boulevard, two men huddled around a tired-looking helium gas canister, monotonously blowing up balloon after balloon as several volunteers busied themselves attaching signs.
Some signs were pictures of Mr. Obama, under which “SOS” was typed. Other banners, hung from groups of balloons, relayed more direct messages: “We need freedom”; “Please release political prisoners”; “Cambodia no justice”; “Obama we need your help, we need human rights”; “Obama welcome to land without human rights”; and “Please save us.”
Over at the new SRP headquarters in Meanchey district’s Chak Angre Krom commune, SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua urged Mr. Obama to follow through on comments made by officials within his administration on Thursday that human rights issues would be addressed during his visit to Cambodia.
“Mr. Obama, stand firm on the values that you fought for. As a president who comes from an African-American background, you know what it is like to fight for freedom and rights,” Ms. Sochua said. “I’m very confident the issues will be raised. I praise the Obama team for their preparation and engaging all parties involved, from NGOs to the government to opposition parties.”
Outside the headquarters at around 4:30 p.m., a group of 20 gathered and shouted “Obama! Democracy!” before releasing hundreds of balloons, drawing curious looks from drivers.
At the Boeng Kak lake eviction site, where thousands have been evicted over the past few years to make way for a private construction project owned by a ruling party senator, about 50 protesters gathered yesterday holding large portraits of Mr. Obama and signs calling for his help in their land dispute.
Minutes before Air Force One touched down in the city at about 5:40 p.m., the group of mostly women and children released about two dozen balloons with messages attached that read: “America can help save us” and “I need land.”
As Air Force One made its descent to Phnom Penh International Airport, the group chanted, “Stand up and resist the government,” as they waved an American flag and a Cambodian flag in the direction of the president’s aircraft.
“I think that Mr. Obama would see what we’re doing here, I hope that he will help us,” said Boeng Kak resident Bo Chhorvy, 39, as she held the American flag.
“We just want them to see the sign and see us so they can help. We don’t believe our government anymore, so we don’t have a choice but to appeal to Obama,” said Sa Bosot, 60, a resident of Boeng Kak, pointing to the clearly visible Peace Palace about 1 km away, where the Asean and East Asia summits are taking place.
The protesters also held large portraits of Mr. Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and created an SOS signal out of shrubbery and candles in the sand of the now-filled-in lake.
The Boeng Kak protesters earlier yesterday attempted to march from the lake area to the U.S. Embassy, only to be stopped by about 50 riot police with shields and batons. On Sunday, about 100 protesters gathered at Boeng Kak lake for a similar rally, releasing balloons with attached SOS messages, pictures of Mr. Obama and stars-and-stripes flags.
Yesterday, about 40 police officers stopped 20 members of the SRP Youth Movement and seized three motorcycles. The group had been driving around Phnom Penh wearing T-shirts bearing Mr. Obama’s face.
“We planned to drive on Norodom Boulevard to Chroy Changva bridge and down Monivong Boulevard,” said opposition party activist Kheun Roeun. “We want Mr. Obama to know that we are welcoming him. We want him to help the economy in our country grow,” he said.
Meanchey district traffic police chief Mom Vai said that the group was stopped because they weren’t obeying traffic laws.
“We stopped them because they didn’t follow traffic law that requires them to have driving licenses, plate licenses, mirrors and wearing helmets, but they don’t have. It is not involved with their parade,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Joshua Wilwohl and Aun Pheap)