Protesters Dig In at ‘Democracy Square’

CPP Officials Say Rally Must Move

A massive sit-in across from the National Assembly entered its third day Wednesday, with vows from the opposition not to move and charges from the government that protesters had broken promises to relocate.

High-level talks aimed to re­duce growing tension failed and by Wednesday night state-controlled TVK aired footage of a man claiming he was hired by protest organizers to throw a grenade at the rally. Demon­stration leaders labeled the allegations false. (see page 2)

Government critic Sam Rain­sy—whose speech at 5:30 pm drew 6,000 people, the biggest crowd of the day—called the charge fabricated and said it was a pretext for a government crackdown against demonstrators.

Phnom Penh First Deputy Governor Chea Sophara (CPP) said Wed­nesday evening he was worried about protester’s safety.

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak (CPP) said Wed­nesday night, “I am concerned.’’

An estimated 500 people were sleeping at the tent city at 1 am today, witnesses said.

A shaky deal was brokered late Tuesday between Interior officials and rally organizers to avoid a forced eviction, but by Wednes­day morning it was clear the two sides still did not see eye-to-eye.

A joint statement from the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec an­nounced, “The people will not move from Democracy Square.

“It is a public place, it is the site of the National Assembly that is meant to represent the people’s will, and it is a place where the people have left their blood in the struggle for freedom,” the statement said, referring to the March 1997 grenade attack that left at least 17 people dead and more than 125 injured.

Prum Sokha (CPP), director-general of administration for the Interior Ministry, and Chea Sophara said the opposition parties were breaking agreements.

“According to what we agreed [Tuesday] night, they agreed to a new application for a sit-in, and to shift from in front of the National Assembly. We proposed the Olympic Stadium,” Prum Sokha said Wednesday. They also agreed to reduce the number of demonstrators, he added.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said late Tuesday night that he had agreed only to move off the street and sidewalks.

Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, speaking briefly to thousands Wednesday morning, said he wanted the demonstration to continue peacefully and gave the sit-in a new name: “Democracy Square.”

A little later, blue signs in Khmer and English were posted around the site with the informal name change.

“People definitely reject the authoritarian regime that prevails in this country for so many years,” Prince Ranariddh told reporters after the speech.

“If there is any possibility of a coalition government, we cannot accept [Second Prime Minister] Hun Sen as prime minister.”

For the second-straight day, Sam Rainsy and Funcinpec representatives were called into the Interior Ministry for discussions on the protest with Prum Sokha.

After the discussions, Sam Rainsy deferred most questions to Funcinpec member Puth Chandarith, who reiterated the opposition will stay in the park.

“We still maintain our position to stay in front of the National Assembly until the problems are resolved,” said Puth Chandarith, who said he was speaking on behalf of Prince Ranariddh.

Prum Sokha asked the political parties to apply for permission to assemble in the park, but they were non-committal on whether they would accept the application, Sam Rainsy said.

In the first half of the meeting open to journalists, Prum Sokha told opposition representatives the government wanted the sit-in to move to Olympic Stadium to avoid traffic problems. He said protesters can take cover when it rains there and can use toilets.

Puth Chandarith said the site was unacceptable.

“Olympic is a just like a compound, [if] we sit there nobody knows what’s happening, nobody sees what we do in there.”

Sam Rainsy said after the In­ter­ior Ministry meeting he was “99 percent” sure authorities would try to instigate violence and use it as an excuse to crack down.

“Authorities will not use violence themselves directly, but they will instigate it, they will push for some group of people to create some incident…and they will ask everybody to leave Dem­ocracy Square,” Sam Rainsy said.

Meanwhile, rumors of counter-demonstrations were rife in the park, with attention focused on the Tonle Bassac squatter camp, where anti-Funcinpec demonstrations were organized in April after the prince returned from nine months of self-imposed exile.

The sit-in lies less than a kilometer away from the squatter camp on the same boulevard.

At about 4:30 pm, sit-in participants in the street became agitated as a group marched toward the tent city from the direction of the squatter camp. As the group approached, a party worker shouting through the microphone urged calm and called for non-violence.

However, the march turned out to be Sam Rainsy leading a group around the park.

During the afternoon, a loudspeaker truck drove through the squatter camp announcing that Chea Sophara had forbidden counter-demonstrations.

A similar message was broadcast on National Radio that also said the influential CPP central committee member intended to file charges against the opposition parties for holding an illegal demonstration.

Earlier in the day, two men carrying a pro-election banner were seen being chased by opposition supporters out of the park. They were ushered away by UN rights workers, before any serious physical harm could be done.

Shortly thereafter, Sam Rainsy made an announcement to the crowd appealing for non-violence.

National Police Director-Gen­eral Hok Lundy said in the early evening Wednesday that he hadn’t yet received government orders to take action against the demonstrators. He had said the day before that contingency plans to use non-lethal force to remove the demonstrators were in place.

The Sam Rainsy Party said it had received ap­proval from the governor of Phnom Penh to hold the demonstration. Chhim Seak Leng, the Funcinpec-appointed governor of Phnom Penh, signed his approval for the demonstration to begin Wednes­day. How­ever, he noted that he had no security forces and that the Ministry of Interior should be consulted.

(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith, Pin Sisovann, Chris Decherd and Kay Johnson)

 

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