Sun Savorn was handing out food on Saturday at an ongoing opposition rally when the trucks pulled up. Men wearing motorcycle helmets and carrying crude truncheons jumped off and started running in her direction, yelling “Go! Go away!”
They kicked the woman to the ground and she tumbled over, hurting her knee. She pulled herself up and ran as fast as she could from the area, which was legally enshrined as a free-expression zone in a 2009 law. Locals call it Freedom Park, or Democracy Square. Since Cambodia’s disputed election in July, the rectangular meeting ground in the middle of the city has served as a staging point for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. Not any more.
“We did this forum without causing any violence or problems, so why did they remove it?" Savorn asked.
After taking tentative steps towards opening up the political system in recent years, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government slammed on the brakes late last week. First, by arresting activists and protesters on Thursday evening. Then, by unleashing military police on garment workers striking for a higher minimum wage, which resulted in the shooting deaths of at least four people on Friday. And finally, and perhaps most symbolically, with the clearing on Saturday of Freedom Park, located mere blocks from the US Embassy.
The government also banned opposition protests, and the court summoned the party’s two leaders, Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy, to court in mid-January to answer questions about causing "serious turmoil." Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party have sent a message that dissent, be it economic or political, will not be tolerated. And for the moment it looks like he will get his way.
“Right now, there’s no democracy at all,” said Kem Ley, an independent political analyst. “One party, one person manages everything. The court, the legislative branch, even the Royal Palace.”
For months, Freedom Park had played the role it was designed for. The opposition used it for rallies, demanding redress after an allegedly fraudulent election in July, and the government adopted a hands-off approach to the ensuing marches. But in December, after unions announced a nationwide strike, and teamed up with the opposition in one of the largest shows of people power in recent memory, something changed.
Within the leadership of Hun Sen's Cambodian People’s Party, or CPP, there were probably always debates about how to handle the swelling demonstrations, says Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
“It just basically tells me that hard liners within the CPP are winning the day,” he said. Virak helped work on a guide to the 2009 law that created Freedom Park. He can’t remember a similar incident occurring in the designated area since it was established.
But the government makes it seem like a routine decision, disconnected from a larger quashing of dissent.
Mok Chito, who heads up the department of central justice inside the Ministry of Interior, said the protests violated the law, even if they had been going on at the same exact place, on and off, for months.
“The demonstration and protests are illegal. And it caused damage to properties of individuals, the state and companies, so we stop it for a short time,” he said.
It was certainly a well-coordinated stoppage. Various departments pitched in. After the initial clearing, city garbage trucks arrived, and workers hopped off to sweep refuse to the side, pick up tarps and remove plastic bags. Water trucks hosed down the park. Police trucks hauled off part of the stage. Authorities provided the vigilante squad with free juices, and gave cokes to the riot cops. By nightfall, everybody not associated with a security force was kept out.