On the morning of Human Rights Day, the elevator doors in my apartment building opened on the ground floor and I took a few steps out into the open-air parking lot. The immense steel gates that separated the courtyard from the street were locked, and it took several awkward minutes of whisper-shouting to wake the night guard. By the time he finally located the key and let me out, I was dangerously close to missing my 5:30 rendezvous. Walking quickly, I passed the dark shapes of moto-taxi drivers stretching against their vehicles in the pre-dawn gloom, ignoring their offers of service.
As I rounded the corner of Street 360, I experienced a moment of panic when Thomas and Omar were not in front of the Kiwi mart as they were supposed to be. We were heading to a pagoda on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to follow a group of Buddhist monks on a human rights march, but since I didn’t know how to get there I was totally reliant on my friends’ local knowledge. If they had already left I would miss the conclusion to a story I had been covering for the last week. I was already imagining the shame of returning home empty handed while they captured Pulitzer-caliber images of a once-in-a-lifetime event, when my phone vibrated in my pocket. One of them had over slept. Relieved, I bought two cans of extra-strong ice coffee and dropped into an aluminum patio chair to wait.
Fifteen minutes later we were sitting in a tuk-tuk, cruising down Preah Sisowath Quay with the darkened banks of the Tonle Sap River to the east. The streets were clear of traffic so early in the morning, and the normally bustling riverside restaurants were shuttered. Further north we passed a temporary army camp set up on the lawn of an international hotel, and all of us wondered if the day would turn violent.
Once past the Japanese bridge, as Chroy Changvar is colloquially known, the road merges with national highway 5. Gradually the tourist traps of the city gave way to the machine shops and small manufacturing businesses that typify urban Cambodia. We began to see other journalists on the road, presumably making their way to the same place as we were. Driving motorcycles that were much nimbler than our own lumbering vehicle, they sped past us and shouted greetings that were mostly lost in the wind.
Not long later, the tuk-tuk’s screaming engine decelerated gratefully and we made a slow left turn across traffic into the long laneway leading to Wat Ottara Watey. Inside the pagoda grounds, monks and citizen activists were grouped together eating breakfast out of styrofoam takeout containers. Those who had already finished scrambled to make last minute preparations for the march, loading cases of water onto flatbed trucks and checking the condition of their Justice Brings Peace banners. Photographers moved between the groups, snapping pictures and talking with people they recognized from previous demonstrations. The mood was social and light, as if the protestors were marching towards an organized convention rather than a potentially dangerous clash with the police. The government had officially withheld permission for the event and no one knew what the consequences of defying them might be. In preparation for the worst, many of the foreign journalists had brought riot helmets. The marchers wore no such protection.
An hour later we were moving. The residents of Phnom Penh had come out of their homes in the thousands and lined both sides of the road as the procession walked towards the city. Mingled among them were the ubiquitous government informers using radios and cell phones to notify the authorities of our progress. As they took photos of the protesters with smartphones, several monks, perhaps feeling that their religious authority would protect them from retaliation, pointed cameras back at them. Strange standoffs ensued with neither party wanting to be the first to walk away. They stood in place and took photo after photo, slowly pushing their cameras closer and closer to each other’s faces. In one exchange I counted over forty shutter clicks.
By 8.30 a.m. the long line of marchers was inside the city center. Riverside was no longer quiet, and early rising tourists stared at our group over the rims of their coffee mugs. Some pulled camera phones out of their pockets. Now that the protest was in the public eye, I was sure a police barricade would be waiting around every corner. Remembering the street riot that saw one bystander dead and many more injured following a garment worker strike last month, I fingered the helmet attached to my camera bag.
But nothing happened. Street by street, block by block, the column moved closer to their destination without a rubber baton or tazer in sight. Only when the National Assembly building was in view did it finally sink in that the police were not going to respond. If they were as surprised as I was, the group leaders didn’t show it. They simply walked over to the nearest patch of shady grass and sat down, perhaps finally able to release some of the tension and exhaustion from the ten-day march on Phnom Penh. They had made it, and a few quick phone calls were enough to confirm that the groups approaching from other sides of the city would make it too.
Where were the police? After attending several dozen protests over years of visiting Cambodia, this passivity was at odds with my past experiences. Harsh government crackdowns on civil unrest were one of the few constants in the Kingdom, and though I was relieved that no one had been hurt, the absence of a reaction was somehow unsettling. I half expected trick; a trap door would open and disgorge thousands of heavily armed shock troops into the street, or secretly installed tear gas launchers would fire from the bushes, scattering the unwary mob. A Twitter post from the satirical social media persona Hun Sen’s Eye echoed my suspicions: “protestors are now entitled to a 15-second head start before we unleash the riot tigers.”
But as the crowd grew to over a thousand strong, such scenarios became increasingly unlikely. For most of an hour I circulated among the crowd, taking pictures and exchanging rumors with other journalists until the merciless sun sent me in search of shade and water. I followed the outer wall of the National Assembly building, searching for a drink vendor. When I stepped around the northeast corner, I saw them: several clusters of men in olive drab uniforms, looking in my direction from their positions in Hun Sen Park. They were sitting in the grass under a tree, drinking Coca-Cola out of plastic bags and chatting on their cell phones.
While later on that night much larger concentrations of riot police gathered around Wat Phnom and engaged in minor clashes with small groups of especially zealous protestors, the 2013 Human Rights Day was essentially a peaceful affair. Other than the officers in the park and a few token guards around the National Assembly’s main entrance, the government refrained from its normal muscle flexing. The demonstration continued unopposed until noon, when the tired group of monks and activists returned to their homes voluntarily.
Maybe this is the new face of Cambodia, a redefined nation with a tolerant approach to political dissention. But somehow I doubt it.