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Rodrigo Duterte visits Cambodia

We first noticed the military police as we crossed Sihanouk Boulevard. They jumped out of transport trucks and swarmed the Independence Monument, blocking every road in and out.

Duterte surrounding by his convoy. Photo © Lee Nutter.

Tho we had witnessed the takeover of this important intersection, we somehow managed to miss the systematic closure of all roads that lead towards it. We were walking down Norodom, a major thoroughfare here in Phnom Penh, and within a matter of minutes the sounds of the bustling traffic had been replaced with a quiet breeze blowing through nearby trees. A police radio crackled occasionally as the few people left on the street looked around with anxious expressions.

Let me just clarify, people weren't pulled over like they were awaiting an ambulance to pass, they had been disappeared, pushed off into side streets unknown, as if their mere existence might cause offense to the dignitaries due at any moment. Beyond two bewildered barang and a couple of Khmer, Norodom Boulevard was almost entirely empty. And then it wasn't.

Before long tens of troops had lined the streets. As they approached machine guns were waved in our general direction simply for being too close to the road. We slowly stepped backwards, the closest officer's gaze remained trained on our position. Having been assigned our own police officer whose job it was to make sure we didn't act out, we decided against getting our phones out for happy snaps. Instead we stood, and watched, and waited for whatever was about to happen.

A few minutes later a police car sped down the centre line at twice the legal speed limit. Then another, this time a little slower. And then he arrived. Wrapped in a black Mercedes limousine, and surrounded by twenty odd Khmer cops on muscled up American motorbikes. Each one indistinguishable from any other, every police boot polished, the chrome of every crank case as flawless as the formation they kept around the car.

They thundered past in what could only be considered an impressive display of power and prowess. The troops, the bikes, the orchestration of the whole event. No-one watching could question the authority and might of the men responsible.

And then after some cryptic Khmer signal the troops that had lined the streets busted down the barricades, and a sea of civilians on motorbikes streamed down the street. And we went to class.

We were on the way home when it happened again, but this time we knew what was about to take place. I wanted to be well positioned to get a good photo of the convoy, so we made use of the chaotic confusion that ensued at the arrival of the troopers, and took our place in the middle of Sihanouk Boulevard, directly opposite the Independence Monument.

While we waited a young family found themselves trapped in the middle of the road alongside us. The father, a conscientious looking fellow of about 45 asked if we knew what was going on. I replied that the Vietnamese were taking back Phnom Penh, then quickly feigned interest in a Khmer conversation between the military police so he couldn't ask questions. I turned back around as he repeated my response to his wife. They both looked at Mel, but rather than set them straight she just shrugged, implying the inevitability of the situation.

I amused myself wondering what I might do if that was the case. While I wondered Mel was taking action doing what any good citizen journalist would do, pretending to scroll through Facebook while she secretly rotated her phone this way and that, videoing the scene on the off chance that those machine guns were loaded, and I was about to become an innocent victim of their bullets.

It was about 6:50pm when the scout car screamed around the Norodom/Sihanouk intersection, some fifteen minutes after they had stopped traffic at rush hour on the busiest intersection in Phnom Penh. I wasn't going to get my picture of the convoy in front of the Independence Monument, but I wasn't about to abandon my mission either.

I took advantage of an officer distracted and crept forward towards the road. I was on my knees, but perhaps I should have taken more notice of the commando crawls I'd seen the in movies, as I wasn't subtle enough. His machine gun arced around and arrived at an angle that could tear up the tiles beneath my feet. I wasn't getting any closer.

I stood up slowly and tip toed backwards until the machine gun no longer threatened my tickled testes. As I exhaled I recalled what I had seen earlier that day, and tried to figure out how I might frame the shot I now knew I had to take. Not being bestowed with the world’s best work ethic my mind wandered and for a moment I wondered, what is the collective noun for a group of Khmer Cops on police academy motorbikes?

My musings were cut short as I heard the first Honda drop a gear and hammer through the intersection. The top dawg of about twenty in a tight diamond formation surrounding the bulletproof black Mercedes, windows tinted to disguise who the occupant obviously was, Rodrigo Duterte, current President of the Philippines.

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People claim Mark Twain said you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story. I can't find a source for that quote, but it's a good one. At no stage during this story was my life ever in any danger, for the most part the police here are actually quite friendly. As far as I know the Vietnamese are not taking back Phnom Penh, and I didn't really tell a middle aged man that they were. Tho I did consider it for a second.


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