Silence is golden in protest

By Phak Seangly and Abby Seiff,Phnom Penh Post, Fri, 20 September 2013

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A monk participating in a peaceful demonstration pauses in front of Phnom Penh’s Royal Palace. VIREAK MAI

Heightened tensions following Sunday’s violent clashes that left one person dead and a dozens injured saw police blockading nearly a kilometre of the riverfront for five hours yesterday to keep protesters and monks away from the Royal Palace.

The two groups – monks and Phnom Penh residents, primarily protesters from the embattled Borei Keila and Boeung Kak communities – descended on Sisowath Quay in the late afternoon.

At the southern edge of the blockade, more than 50 monks urged police to move aside barricades and allow them to appeal to King Norodom Sihamoni to delay Monday’s scheduled opening session of parliament.

When the authorities refused, one by one the monks sat cross-legged on the ground and began a silent meditation as onlookers and the media swarmed around them.

“We are meditating for peace without any violence. We want to express our will to the King so he will know about people’s pains and concerns, as the pain of the people is the pain of the King,” said Venerable Khem Sophea, 33.

Over the course of 30 minutes, the rapidly swelling group sat without a word. Behind them, a smaller contingent of civilians joined them in meditation, while others walked past officers placing flowers in the pockets of their flak jackets.

“We want to spread virtue and mercy to all leaders, particularly to the ones who are clinging and addicted to power,” said Venerable Keo Somaly, 32. “We never would use any violence whatsoever.… We do this for justice only.”

Asked why the monks were barred from entering the stretch of road, officers shrugged and said they were simply following orders.

In front of the palace, some two-dozen riot police in full gear and armed with gas canister launchers practiced marching formations, readying themselves for a possible confrontation at the northern end of the barricade, where hundreds of protesters were surging against the gates.

“The people who went to protest were cracked down on, disbursed by water cannons and tear gas. The police opened fire on them like animals,” screamed Sar Suon, a community representative from Borei Keila.

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As she spoke, small clusters of men vociferously debated politics behind her.

“Next election, the CPP will lose even more – they will wind up like Funcinpec,” one man angrily shouted.

At about 5pm, with the crowd growing more restive, riot police started marching toward them, setting off jeers from the protesters.

“It’s a human rights violation to block people from praying at the [riverside Preah Ang Dangkeur] shrine,” Suon shouted.

For the better part of two hours, about 50 officers milled around, waiting for orders to hang back as the crowd slowly dissipated.

At one point, an officer pleaded with the few dozen remaining protesters to leave so that he could return home and start preparations for Pchum Ben, which begins tomorrow. Shortly after 7, the crowd had diminished enough that police could dismantle barriers.

Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, later defended the blockades, saying they were a necessary means of protection.

“Some people wanted to go in front of the Royal Palace to ask the King for the postponement of the National Assembly. We have to do that [cordon the area] because it’s the area of the King,” he told the Post.

Asked why they posed a threat, he said they were prevented from entering out of concern they would bother the monarch.

“He has already decided [to set the date], so when people do that, it means they don’t respect the will of the King.”

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