​How powerful the people? Lessons for Democracy Square | Phnom Penh Post

How powerful the people? Lessons for Democracy Square

National

Publication date
04 September 1998 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Post Staff

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FROM THE MOUTHS OF BABES...?

A child wonders about the sudden fuss at the opposition demonstration outside Parliament.

THE latest phenomenon in Cambodian politics - Democracy Square - is facing crunch

time.

The 'people's movement' in the park echoes similar protests from around the world

and throughout the 20th century, from Gandhi to the American civil rights movement.

But how long can it last?

Proponents like Sam Rainsy say it will remain until they get justice. Opponents scoff

and say it will collapse as people get bored, the squalor increases and the novelty

wears off.

The government's refusal to resolve it through violence, despite actions that have

occured there such as the vandalism and burning of the Khmer-Vietnamese statue, could

take the wind out of the square's sails.

Historically, protests without violence often resolve little. That is not to say

that non-violent protests don't work. Gandhi demonstrated their effectiveness with

his protests against the salt tax in India.

His was non-violent but the negative publicity generated by behavior of British-controlled

soldiers and police clubbing his followers advanced his cause no end.

But the CPP aren't about to fall into the same trap. Hun Sen is doing much to accommodate

the protesters and ensure that security is tight so that no maverick forces can take

matters into their own hands and deliver the crisis that every revolution needs to

maintain momentum.

Probably the starkest examples of dealing with non-violent protest through meeting

it with violence on one hand - and ignoring it on the other - are from the US civil

rights protests.

Violence against demonstrators by Birmingham's police chief Bull Connor and Selma's

Jim Clark led to the desegregation of Birmingham in 1963 and the passage of the Voting

Rights Act in 1965.

But little remembered is the failure of Dr Martin Luther King's campaign in Albany,

Georgia, in the summer of 1964 after canny law enforcement officers refused to offer

violence to demonstrators. That summer's civil rights campaign gradually fizzled

out. After Dr King's death, the Poor People's March, led by his successor Ralph Albernathy,

met a similar dismal end in the mud and squalor of a Washington campground.

There is no doubt that the organizers of Democracy Square are trying to tap into

the energy that created China's Tianamen Square protests, or the backing for Aung

San Suu Kyi in Burma.

But there are subtle and crucial differences. Tianamen Square had a more spontaneous

grassroots momentum. Democracy Square on the other hand seems to have Rainsy's hand

of public relations slickness caressing it.

The number of signs in English calling for the implementation of the Balinski/Young

formula are unlikely to have been created at a village in the back of Prey Veng following

an informed discussion among the local farmers over the relative merits of the proportional

representation seat allocation formulas. But on the other hand, there is obviously

a sophisticated and genuinely-felt political reason for most of those demonstrators

to be there.

Tianamen Square was also under the continual threat of violence. It is very likely

that Rainsy would willingly stand in front of a tank if one approached but right

now the best he could hope for is a moto and even that would probably belong to one

of his own supporters.

Rainsy might possibly be compared to Suu Kyi in terms of charisma and popular support

but hers was just a wee bit more popular. Her party won her election.

Indonesia also may offer some insight into what the people can demand and expect

to gain.

But again Indonesia's protests were violent and the protesters were mainly the middle

class who were facing a steep fall in their living standards. This group tend to

fight for what they have rather than what they might gain.

Shoving aside any cynicism, Democracy Square has been a very rare example in Cambodia

of a mass attempt at a peaceable resolution of a political conflict. And it seems

to have truly captured the imagination of many - though ironically, mainly because

the people themselves realized sooner than most that the ruling authorities weren't

going to stamp it down.

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