By late Saturday afternoon, dozens of truckloads of CPP supporters from nearby provinces were camped in the parking lot of Olympic Stadium, and a band was playing Love Potion No 9.
Kramas, food, more music and a late-night comedy act were yet to come. So much for any plans of an opposition demonstration at the same spot on Sunday.
The CPP dramatically changed tactics over the weekend, rendering the opposition mostly silent on city streets. But observers were divided over the wisdom of the strategy, which employed thousands of civilians, rather than police, as the primary counter-balance to opposition protests.
“It shows they still remain in control of everything and are capable to easily take back whatever they’ve lost [through the opposition protests],” said a Western diplomat.
But an Asian diplomat said if the CPP has its own supporters with police encouraging them, they lower themselves to the level of the opposition. “I think this is a bit worrying.”
A military analyst was more blunt: “I think it’s a desperate strike, maybe the last hurrah before a more forceful approach [by the government] if politicians refuse to talk.”
CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said the demonstrations were needed to illustrate how much support Second Prime Minister Hun Sen really has.
“We had no other way,” Khieu Kanharith said Sunday. “To stay idle and let people create trouble might have made outsiders” think most back the opposition.
Instead, Phnom Penh, which voted heavily in favor of the opposition Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy parties, doesn’t reflect Cambodia as a whole, Khieu Kanharith said.
Even in Phnom Penh, he later added, the CPP could attract 100,000 supporters if it wanted to.
Khieu Kanharith just laughed when repeatedly asked who concocted the plan to bring in farmers by the truckload.
“It’s the CPP idea,” he finally said. “We’ve had a lot of [requests] from CPP supporters to hold demonstrations.”
The military analyst said it smacked of a “communist-engineered approach to life”—show the world that you have more supporters than the other side.
“I suppose to the CPP mind” it worked in countering the opposition protest, he said.
Indeed, CPP supporters from Phnom Penh armed with sticks, stones and even pistols, combined with the presence of about 100 trucks and thousands of provincial villagers were able to effectively subdue opposition protesters over the weekend.
Many CPP supporters admitted they had been paid, and still others reported they had been lured not by principle but pressure from their commune chief.
As a lot, they were quieter than opposition protesters, and spent much of their time lounging in the riverfront area near the Royal Palace or at Olympic Stadium.
What troubled the Asian diplomat is that he believed Hun Sen didn’t need to bus in his supporters, that police already had the situation relatively under control.
“I think it will harm him a little, in that the international community will not be appreciative of this,” the Asian diplomat said.
Khieu Kanharith said the plan was approved by “important” officials of the CPP. Hun Sen has recently kept a low profile.
“He’s staying quiet in Takhmau,” Khieu Kanharith said, “because a lot of people could think he masterminds everything.”
Whether the tactics worked will depend on how many opposition protesters turn out in the following days, observers said.
While some questioned the tactics of the CPP’s counter-demonstration, they also questioned whether the opposition will grow enough in size to force the government to severely crack down. Such a crackdown could involve military units.
Separately over the weekend, Funcinpec called for a halt to the demonstrations and confirmed a Wednesday meeting between Prince Norodom Ranariddh and King Norodom Sihanouk.
But opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has not called for an end to the demonstrations, still represents the wild card in the high-stakes political game of the moment.
(Additional reporting by Rachel Watson)