Facing increasing pressure from the government to avoid disrupting public order, opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha announced Monday that planned demonstrations for Saturday would become a day of prayer for justice, rather than a protest against the CPP’s claim of victory in July’s election.
“We are going to hold the demonstration with calm spirits, and turn it into praying for peace both physically and mentally,” Mr. Rainsy said during a press conference at the CNRP’s office in Meanchey district, adding that the CNRP would not call for a change in government.
“We will hold the demonstration peacefully and we will maintain our dignity. We will not do anything to cause trouble,” he said.
CNRP supporters who are not able to make it to Phnom Penh can join the cause by praying at their local pagodas, Mr. Rainsy added.
A few days ago, during a rally at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, Mr. Rainsy said a failure to conduct an independent investigation into election irregularities would lead to “massive demonstrations happening everywhere.”
“We will have a nonviolent demonstration using our minds and feelings rather than our bodies and words,” Mr. Sokha said at Monday’s press conference.
The announcement from the CNRP comes on the back of a series of warnings from the government that should the opposition decide to demonstrate, there would be a high risk of violence.
The Interior Ministry sent packages to foreign embassies and NGOs last week that tied speeches by Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha to two bombings that have occurred since the election and a letter from an alleged terrorist calling for a government coup, in order to warn of the potentially violent outcomes of a CNRP demonstration.
Another statement issued by the government on Saturday urged political parties, students, civil servants, security forces, monks and members of the media to remain calm and told foreigners to keep their distance from any potential protests.
However, Mr. Rainsy said after Monday’s press conference that the CNRP’s decision to prioritize peace in its demonstration was in response to a letter from King Norodom Sihamoni calling for calm, and was not a reaction to government pressure on the CNRP to avoid potentially disruptive demonstrations.
“What triggered our clarification is the letter from the King, which we cannot ignore. What we are focusing on is that last sentence,” he said. In the final sentence of King Sihamoni’s letter dated Friday, he appealed to “all citizens to continue to remain calm and maintain our national dignity.”
The CNRP’s modified vision for nationwide demonstrations was reported by a number of Khmer-language news outlets as a change of plans by the opposition party to hold a day of prayers rather than a mass demonstration, prompting a number of CNRP supporters to express disappointment on social media.
In an apparent attempt to quell the confusion, the CNRP issued a statement Monday afternoon saying that the demonstration was to go ahead as planned.
“The CNRP has the honor to inform all compatriots, especially youth, that the CNRP will hold a nonviolent mass demonstration to demand the creation of a special independent commission to investigate to find truth and justice related to the July 28, 2013, election,” the statement says.
“This nonviolent mass demonstration will be held from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. on September 7 at Freedom Park near Wat Phnom,” it continues.
CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said that nothing had changed in the party’s plan to demonstrate should the ruling CPP continue to refuse their calls for an independent investigation into election irregularities.
“Nothing has changed, it’s just that we will stress more on the meditation side. We just want to reassure that there will not be violence and we will respect the spirit of His Majesty [King Sihamoni],” she said.
“We will still do ‘bdo min bdo,’” she said, referring to the CNRP’s chant for change during the opposition’s election campaign.
“However, we are very aware that we have to use the new techniques that we have been trained for, which is nonviolence. Rather than going out there and pushing and shoving, we are using meditation, we are using prayers to get out the same message as always,” she said.
On Thursday, 100 CNRP activists were trained in how to conduct peaceful demonstrations. They passed on the lessons to about 500 CNRP supporters who gathered in Freedom Park on Sunday.
About 2,000 municipal police took part in training exercises the same day to prepare for the protests.
Cheam Yeap, a CPP lawmaker and de facto party spokesman, said that he welcomed the announcement from the CNRP, which seemed to be in line with letters sent by both King Sihamoni and the government calling for calm.
“This is one concession for the nation and the country. We welcome the idea [of a peaceful protest]. The CPP also agrees with the King’s letter, and now the CNRP finds that only peace can work,” he said, adding that he expected the two to return to the negotiating table soon.
While the two parties have met for two rounds of talks, they have yet to break an impasse over the composition of the commission.
The CPP has said that only the National Election Committee (NEC) has the authority to conduct an investigation into the election, while the CNRP has called for an outside investigation of its allegations that the NEC cooperated with the CPP in rigging the election.
The CNRP has called for further talks between the leaders of each party, something that Prime Minister Hun Sen said in a speech on August 1 would be possible if lower-level talks failed.
“It won’t be long [before talks resume],” said Mr. Yeap. “We will find a middle way. We have to talk about what the CNRP and CPP wants.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that the CPP has yet to commit to high-level talks over the formation of an investigation commission, and that even if it did demonstrations would still to go forward.
“Negotiations and demonstrations have to be held in parallel. We cannot say that there will be no negotiations. We are also Cambodian, we have to sit down and talk, but any negotiation needs to have a clear objective,” he said.