Newspaper article International New York Times

Diversity of Voices Unite in March against Cambodian Leader

Newspaper article International New York Times

Diversity of Voices Unite in March against Cambodian Leader

Article excerpt

A peaceful procession on Sunday was one of the biggest acts of defiance against Prime Minister Hun Sen.

The tens of thousands of antigovernment demonstrators who marched through Phnom Penh, in one of the biggest acts of defiance against the nearly three decades of rule by Prime Minister Hun Sen, brought together protesters with a diverse list of grievances but all united in their calls for the authoritarian ruler to step down.

The procession on Sunday, which was peaceful and stretched for several miles through a commercial district of Phnom Penh, the capital, included Buddhist monks, garment workers, farmers and supporters of the main opposition party.

Their chants -- "Hun Sen! Get out!" -- echoed down the broad avenue where they marched.

In July, Mr. Hun Sen's party claimed victory in disputed elections that the opposition and many independent monitoring organizations said were deeply flawed. Mr. Hun Sen formed a government despite the growing protests by the opposition, which has boycotted Parliament and is calling for new elections.

Cambodia's political stalemate and protest movement have been somewhat overshadowed by the turmoil in nearby Thailand, where antigovernment demonstrators are rallying to block elections and install a "people's council" to govern the country during what they describe as a hiatus from democracy.

But some analysts in Cambodia describe the past few months as a watershed for Cambodian society, which for years has been dominated by the highly personalized rule of Mr. Hun Sen, whose party has tight control over major institutions in the country, including the army, the police, the judiciary and much of the news media.

Protesters blocking traffic and marching through central Phnom Penh remain a jarring sight after years during which the main message from the government has been that people should be grateful for the unity and development that Mr. Hun Sen brought to Cambodia after many years of war.

"It seems like a turning point in the history of civil society," said Yeng Virak, the executive director of the Community Legal Education Center, a Cambodian human rights organization. "People feel more free to join protests and to identify themselves as part of the opposition."

The continued vigor of the protest movement five months after the elections appears to be a reflection of the deep pool of resentment in the country toward Mr. Hun Sen.

One woman who took part in the march on Sunday, Meng Phang, 59, shouted to onlookers, including stone-faced police officers, that "Hun Sen and his family are getting richer, but everyone else is getting poorer."

Ms. Meng Phang's participation also represented another crucial factor of the protests: the sustained financing of the movement. Ms. Meng Phang said she had donated about $1,000 to the protest movement from money she had saved while working in a factory in Japan. …

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