Bellicose warnings of suppression by riot and military police in the lead-up to the opposition CNRP’s three days of marching through the streets of Phnom Penh left many predicting clashes that would lay bare the CPP government’s authoritarian tendencies.
A TIME magazine headline on Tuesday claimed that Phnom Penh was braced for “bloodshed,” a claim that was met with derision on social media.
Riot control exercises held throughout the city, including one session at Freedom Park a day before the opening of the CNRP’s mass demonstration on Wednesday, allowed police to show off their wares as they practiced with batons and shields.
Then on Tuesday evening, the government suddenly changed tact and announced that the CNRP would not only be allowed to march unimpeded throughout the city but would be protected by police as they did so.
Scenes of peace followed on Wednesday as more than 10,000 CNRP supporters followed opposition party leaders as they journeyed from Freedom Park past rows of their cheering supporters to deliver a petition to the U.N. calling for intervention to protect multiparty democracy in the country.
“The government has listened to advice from their advisers to receive feedback and provide a space for the people to express themselves,” said Kim Ley, an independent political analyst and researcher.
“In the previous demonstration, the CPP suspected that the opposition could try to topple the government [through demonstrations],” Mr. Ley added. “Now they’ve realized that is unlikely and have become softer” in response.
During the CNRP’s first mass demonstration last month, the government placed Phnom Penh in a state of near total security shutdown using cascades of razor-wire barricades and military police. As commuters and protesters were traveling home from the first daylong peaceful demonstration in the city, a 29-year-old man was shot dead and several others injured by authorities during a stone-throwing incident near Monivong Bridge spurred by the anger of ordinary people over traffic jams caused by police roadblocks.
Sok Sam Oeun, chairman of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, said the lack of resistance from authorities could lessen motivation among opposition supporters to continue demonstrating, a possible boon for the ruling CPP.
“The government might have learned from experience,” he said. “If the demonstrators go on for a long time with no results, the people may get tired, but if the government tries to crack down, more supporters will come.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, said that the CPP’s softened stance toward open dissent on the streets of Phnom Penh was positive but likely a move driven by concerns over the government’s image abroad.
“It is smart that the government has cooperated—good will is itself a strategy, if you consider that the government’s image might have been further wounded if they cracked down on protesters or suppressed the opposition using violence,” he said.
The CPP, Mr. Kol explained, has learned that if it cooperates during the CNRP’s demonstrations, there is little news to report and business can carry on as usual.
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan took Mr. Kol’s point one step further and said that the leaders of CNRP might now regret the Ministry of Interior’s last-minute decision to allow their marches.
“The opposition party would like to see clashes. They’re looking for the media to pay attention [to them] and write about human rights,” Mr. Siphan said. “They’re used to using demonstrators as human shields and to take advantage and we understand that now.”
CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha said the opposition was glad that its pressure on the government had prevented repression of their march.
“We have no intention for there to be clashes or any violence. The reason we’re holding this demonstration is to find justice concerning the irregularities at the election,” he said.
CNRP President Sam Rainsy said that it was “negative” to view the results of cooperation between the CNRP and CPP as a blunting of the opposition’s momentum, saying that more supporters would turn out in the future if they know they can do so without the danger of retribution.
“The fact that we could march peacefully is a good thing,” Mr. Rainsy said. “It gives confidence and assurance to our supporters, even if the media pays less attention.”
Moeun Tola, head of labor affairs at the Community Legal Education Center, said that the CPP’s move was likely not intended either to forestall the CNRP’s momentum or to avoid bad publicity in a time of volatile politics.
Instead, Mr. Tola said, the CPP’s move was likely a simple realization that its security forces do not have the numbers or will to suppress a march carried out by tens of thousands of opposition supporters.
“They understand that the number of people coming is larger than the number of military and riot police who can crack down. If there is a demonstration of only 100 or 200 people, they could do it again,” he said.