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Published: Sunday, 12/29/2013


Thousands calling for premier’s ouster

Diverse group decries authoritarian rule

Supporters of Cambodian’s opposition party gather for a mass demonstration against Prime Minister Hun Sen Sunday at Democracy Square in Phnom Penh. Supporters of Cambodian’s opposition party gather for a mass demonstration against Prime Minister Hun Sen Sunday at Democracy Square in Phnom Penh.

PHNOM PENH — Tens of thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched through Phnom Penh on Sunday in one of the biggest acts of defiance against the nearly three-decade rule of Cambodia’s authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen.

The procession, which was peaceful and stretched for several miles through a commercial district of Phnom Penh, the capital, brought together protesters with a diverse list of grievances: Buddhist monks, garment workers, farmers, and supporters of the main opposition party.

They were united in their calls for Hun Sen to step down; their chants — “Hun Sen! Get Out!” — echoed down the broad avenue where they marched.

In July, Hun Sen’s party claimed victory in disputed elections that the opposition and many independent monitoring organizations said were deeply flawed. 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 anti-government 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 here as a watershed for Cambodian society, which for years has been dominated by the highly personalized rule of 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 downtown 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 Hun Sen brought to Cambodia after many years of war.

One woman who took part in the march 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.”

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

Kem Sokha, one of the protest leaders, singled out contributions “from our people abroad” in a speech to protesters Sunday evening.

There are large Cambodian populations in Australia, France, and the United States, among other countries.

Sok Heng, a middle-aged carpenter, lamented the lack of justice in the country and mentioned the case of his brother-in-law, who was killed by a thief. The police asked for a bribe before agreeing to arrest the suspect, he said.

Touch Vandeth, 24, was one of thousands of garment workers on strike, demanding a doubling of the minimum wage to $160 a month, a sharp increase that would put wages well above those of Cambodia’s regional economic competitors, including Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Vietnam.

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