I used to think of Phnom Penh as a city of protests. When I first moved here, in 2009, you could barely go a week without seeing a demonstration of some sort. People protested over land grabs and evictions and environmental degradation; over shuttered factories and wrongful arrests and layoffs. There was a demonstration where sacked employees of a radio broadcaster burned tyres on a quiet street near the Royal Palace, and another where those protesting the destruction of a forest marched through Phnom Penh with faces painted like the characters from the movie Avatar. It was woven into the very fabric of city life. After all, capitals have long served this purpose: the chance to petition directly those in power.
I was working at the Cambodia Daily and this all made for prime daily news fodder. If you were a new reporter, a protest would probably be one of your first assignments: tailor-made for the inexperienced and incompetent. You’d show up and have ten or twenty or 100 would-be interviewees eager to speak with a reporter about whichever injustice they were fighting. The savviest protesters knew that theatricality was part of what would draw the media, and they could be jaw-droppingly creative.
When a sprawling, controversial case on garment worker strikes went to trial, supporters of the imprisoned unionists dragged out a pair of coffins stuffed with effigies representing the judge and prosecutor. A group of women protesting the compensation plans for those forced off the city’s Boeung Kak Lake attempted to build a small house on the sand that had been pumped in for the mega-development. When US President Barack Obama flew in to visit Phnom Penh, residents slated for eviction from their impoverished community near the airport painted a huge “SOS” on their roofs.