Wednesday 10 August 2011

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I remember…

On 23 July 2011, I had to say good bye to the place we all call with affection “71”, SRP headquarter at 71, Sothearos Boulevard. My heart was filled with sadness because I have so many memories accumulated over the 14 years when 71 has hosted us between December 1997 and July 2011.

I remember my first visit there with vice-president Kong Korm, after our return from Thailand end of 1997. He walked with me through grass as high as me. We reached the main building, a 1960-style house that used to be the residence of Australian ambassador Noel Deschamps, with a large living-room, 6 rooms, 2 lavatories, small closets, all in pretty good condition.

I remember my feeling of relief: we have a place for our Party offices! I don’t know where the president was, not in Cambodia anyway, so I told the vice-president “Thank you for offering your land, it will be great for our Party!”. When we started clearing the land, we found an enormous boa. Good omen, everybody rejoiced!

I remember the first mass meeting of the then-Khmer Nation Party at 71, on 9 November 1997. I was walking up and down the place, attentive to any sign of an attack. I was still traumatized by the grenade attack on a meeting of the BLDP the year before, and by our own grenade attack on 30 March 1997. I remember my feeling of relief at the end of the day when I was sure everything went OK.

I remember Yim Sokha: “We need more working space”, my worries “Where am I going to find the money?”, his shy smile –he rarely smiled “We raised the money among ourselves, I am not soliciting you, just informing”. They raised 10,000$ among friends to build 8 rooms that would later house the Women’s Wing, the Youth Wing, the Legal department, the Membership department, the Social Affairs department, and the Admin. At one stage, the president’s office and cabinet were located in that wooden building.

I remember the cute baby-girl named Rathsophea born during a demonstration in front of the old National Assembly, to a woman who came from Poipet with hundreds of other farmers to protest the confiscation of their lands to build the future casino. Chased away by policemen from the park across the National Assembly or by the rain, turned away from overwhelmed pagodas, they came to our Party headquarters as the last resort, begging for a place to sleep. I remember giving the driest place in priority to mothers with infants –our place too was under the rain… I remember calling embassies, humanitarian NGOs, friends and donors, trying to find food, mosquito nets, mats and other basic necessities. I remember negotiating with doctors for the sick ones or the weakest ones. Wave after wave, between 2000 and 2003, 71 must have received thousands of persons, whether expropriated families or hungry villagers from different provinces. I remember the sadness at the thought of whole families sleeping under the rain with no shelter and the feeling of being powerless in front of such tragedies. Since then, when in the safety of my bedroom and the comfort of my bed, I hear the rain falling on the roof, I think of the crowds of people who do not have a dry place where to sleep.

I remember the activists arriving stained in blood after an armed attack, like this young man from Memot who was hit 7 times with an axe and lost one ear. I remember the monk who, sitting high on huge bags of rice, rode a cyclo to 71 flooded by monsoon rains. I remember the delivery of millions of vitamin pills to be distributed to the poorest to compensate for a deficient diet.

I remember the fever of the electoral campaign, 71 busy like a bee’s house, phones ringing everywhere, leaflets and other electoral material arriving in and immediately dispatched, I remember the impatience for results from polling stations, the loud screams of joy at good figures, the anger at cases of fraud, the feeling of injustice against the biased electoral authorities, the discouragement at the announcement of the final results,…1998, 2002, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2009.

I remember the meeting room Thun Bunly filled with passionate debates in the steering committee. I remember voting for hotly contested leadership positions in the Party. I remember fascinating training sessions on canvassing, recruiting members, message creation and delivery, public speaking,…

I remember the euphoria on the return of Sam Rainsy in February 2006, 71 flooded with white-and-blue candle light tee-shirts and caps.

Yesterday, once again, the streets of Phnom Penh were flooded with white-and-blue shirts, walking from 71 to the new Party office in Chak Angre. As hundreds of SRP members were entering the new building, I was thinking that today, tomorrow, and every day after tomorrow, these new walls would, again, witness the excitement of the fight for freedom.

Good bye, 71! Thank you for having sheltered the most noble part of ourselves.

I will always remember.

Tioulong Saumura

Phnom Penh, 24 July 2011

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