The opposition CNRP on Sunday held a planned ‘people’s congress’ at its party headquarters, heeding a government order not to attempt a public gathering in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, which remained heavily guarded by police throughout the day.
Still, an unannounced march through the capital marked the CNRP’s first public rally since authorities summarily swept opposition supporters from the public park in early January.
Hundreds of CNRP faithful joined opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha for a morning ceremony in remembrance of 16 people who were killed in a grenade attack on an opposition rally in 1997.
After joining dozens of monks in prayer, Mr. Sokha told the crowd that those killed by the grenade attack continued to serve as models for the opposition.
“They have left us with strong ideals to continue to fight through politics in a non-violent way to oppose dictators who shot our people,” Mr. Sokha said.
“We believe that one day the killers who killed our demonstrators will be put behind bars,” he said.
With the temperature hovering above 35 degrees, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha then led a 4-km march from the memorial stupa commemorating the attack, located in Wat Botum park, to the CNRP headquarters in Meanchey district, where a stage had been prepared for the event.
Arriving shortly after noon, Mr. Rainsy denounced the police occupation of Freedom Park, which was the home base for opposition protests in the months following July’s disputed national election.
“Today, Freedom Park is called authoritarian park,” said Mr. Rainsy, who has lambasted the “de facto martial law” that has been imposed by the CPP since January.
“Freedom Park was once used to allow people to express their views, but in recent weeks…authorities have not allowed people to rally,” he added.
Both City Hall and the Ministry of Interior announced last week that the CNRP would not be allowed to proceed with its planned demonstration, citing ongoing investigations into protest-related violence in January.
On Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen personally called on the CNRP to “pull back” from the planned mass rally.
Hundreds of municipal police in riot gear began conducting exercises in Freedom Park early Sunday morning, with crowd-control trucks and fire trucks blocking all entry roads into the park.
Large swaths of the center of the city, including areas around Independence Monument and Mr. Hun Sen’s villa, were temporarily closed down by police roadblocks and barricades, which were removed by the afternoon.
The CNRP’s march was allowed to proceed unimpeded and there were no reports of violence Sunday by protesters or police.