Video courtesy of Phnom Penh Post
It was a scene South Korean pop star Psy would have been proud of. As his ubiquitous hit song poured out of a tuk-tuk packed with loudspeakers, dozens of Cambodians performed his now iconic horse dance outside the National Assembly yesterday to draw the government’s attention to their call for a stop to land grabs and forced evictions, higher garment factory salaries and more protection for migrant workers.
The dancers were among about 200 factory workers, human rights workers, students and victims of eviction who gathered outside the Assembly to deliver a petition containing about 11,200 signatures, which were scrawled across the fronts and backs of the protesters’ T-shirts.
Dancing like you’ve mounted a galloping horse may appear to have little to do with human rights at first glance.
But Moeun Tola, who heads the Community Legal Education Center’s labor rights program and who helped organize the event, said the protesters were using the South Korean dance moves to draw attention to their cause.
“‘Gangnam Style’ is a popular style,” Mr. Tola said.
“The expectation of the community is to draw attention not only nationally, but internationally. That is why they try to be more creative,” he said.
“The people hold the protest today because the National Assembly never finds a solution for them.”
Land grabs and forced evictions of the poor by the powerful has become the key human rights concern in Cambodia, with some 400,000 people having been affected in the past decade, local human rights groups say.
Over the past year or so, anti-eviction protesters have employed a number of creative tactics to draw attention to their causes, from undressing in the streets to burning effigies of “corrupt officials” and pinning their petitions to the “the world’s longest krama.”
Yesterday’s “Gangnam” protesters also brought along four “Christmas trees” adorned with hundreds of individually signed cards collected by Amnesty International volunteers in France, Germany, South Korea and New Zealand denouncing forced evictions in Cambodia.
Poorly paid police officers, known as much for breaking up protests as for protecting people, also got a nod at yesterday’s eclectic demonstration: Many of the protesters wore T-shirts with a cartoon police officer on the front and a call for higher police salaries on the back.
“Low salaries cause a lot of problems,” said Sar Mora, president of the Cambodian Food and Service Workers Federation, which also helped organize the event. “There is a lot of corruption,” Mr. Mora said. “Especially the traffic police always ask for bribes.”
Some of the day’s protesters were also there to demand the release of political prisoners, namely two anti-eviction activists—Yorm Bopha and Tim Sakmony—who have been in jail awaiting trial since September and are scheduled to appear in court next week. The women have been charged with causing intentional violence and making a false declaration, respectively, though rights groups say the arrests were political as they were targeted for their activism.
“I would like to appeal to the government to release the two women and other prisoners because they did nothing wrong,” said Tep Vanny, who spent about a month in jail this year for taking part in peaceful anti-eviction protests in Phnom Penh.
“I would like to appeal to the parliamentarians in their air-conditioned rooms to please help find a solution for all of us,” she said.
Yesterday’s protest was meant to cap off the many events across Cambodia that rights groups and local associations held to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10.
Nhil Pheap, who took part in yesterday’s protest on behalf of the Farmers Association for Peace and Development, said his group has had several events thwarted by authorities in the past.
“We need freedom and human rights because the authorities always prevent us and use violence on protesters,” he said outside the Assembly.
A security guard accepted the protesters’ petition through the locked gate but refused to open up to take in the T-shirts bearing the thousands of signatures, which had been collected in baskets.
However, Human Rights Party lawmaker Ou Chanrith offered to deliver the petitioned T-shirts himself; he packed the baskets into his truck and drove them into the Assembly through a side entrance.
National Assembly Cabinet chief Koam Kosal acknowledged receipt of the letter.
“We have received the letter and it has already been passed to the general-secretary to be submitted to Samdech president,” he said, referring to the National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Mr. Kosal declined to comment on the baskets of T-shirts.