On assignment for VICE.
Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, has
been in power for nearly three decades. Many Cambodians consider him a
dictator. He maintains complete control of the media and his party – the CPP --
has used their power to bleed Cambodia of much of its land and many of its natural
resources. Although Cambodia has been peaceful since the civil war ended in
1979 it is still an oppressed country engrained in corruption.
The 2013 general elections gave Cambodians
a voice for the first time. The urbanized parts of the country have utilized Facebook
as a communicative tool to unify and speak out. As a result the CPP lost the
majority of its power to the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by
exiled leader Sam Rainsy. He returned just prior to the elections due to a royal pardon and instilled confidence in his
followers to dare to speak out and demand a free and fair democratic state.
Provisional election results showed a
marginal victory for the CPP. Many parts
of Cambodia were outraged. Approximately 1 million voters were missing from the
electoral role and stories of widespread voting irregularities filtered into
society. The CNRP refused to accept the results and demanded that an
independent committee investigate the electoral irregularities - it never
Rainsy called his followers to protest in Freedom Park, located in the heart of
Phnom Penh. Through Facebook and word of mouth news spread across the country that
the three day and three night demonstration was to be held.
The first day, the 15th of September
saw tens of thousands of Cambodians from all walks of life fill Freedom Park.
Tents were erected, food donated, medical supplies stocked; the CNRP was
It was not only the CNRP making
preparations. The government had mobilized
the army. All around Phnom Penh, riot police could be seen in full riot gear
carrying tear gas and smoke grenades. Strategically placed barriers, razor wire
fencing guarded key government areas and controlled access in and out of the
The situation was tense. If the
demonstrators were to leave Freedom Park,inevitably they would be
confronted by riot police. And yet, the protesters were led by Rainsy towards
the shrine of Norodom Sihanouk. Protesters tore apart barricades and dismantled
the razor wire fencing while police loaded gas canisters. Phnom Penh was on the brink of chaos; the
tone of the day had been set. Rainsy triumphantly marched through the
barricades, paid his respects to the late king and then led the protesters back
to Freedom Park.
As nighttime fell in Phnom Penh police blockades remained in position causing
multiple problems across the city. At Kbal Thnal overpass - a logistical artery
into Phnom Penh- citizens began to dismantle the barricades.
This was the catalyst for the brutality
that followed. Riot police armed with electrified riot shields unleashed water
cannons on citizens and demonstrators. Electrified riot shields were used and
many innocent citizens were badly beaten. The situation escalated and police
inexplicably fired live ammunition into the masses, killing one innocent
bystander with a bullet through his forehead. Several others were seriously
Grieving family members and angry citizens
surrounded the body of Mao Sok Chan as he lay for several hours until the UN
arrived and removed the body.
News of the night’s actions filtered back to Freedom Park where peaceful
protesters had gathered for the night. They remained calm and as dawn broke in
Freedom Park Sam Rainsy pleaded for restraint.
Two further days of demonstrations gave the
thousands of attendees their chance to broadcast their voice to the world,
something that has never been seen in Cambodia before. Large factions of
Cambodia want change and the situation remains unresolved. With more demonstrations
planned, Cambodia’s political situation remains on a knife edge.