At a long-awaited demonstration Saturday morning by the opposition party to protest election results showing a victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP, CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha promised further mass rallies should the government fail to meet their demand for an impartial investigation into the July 28 vote.
As Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha took to the stage at about 8 a.m. in Freedom Park, they were cheered by a crowd that comfortably met the predicted 20,000 supporters the CNRP said would attend the demonstration.
Opposition officials had announced earlier this week that the rally was to be a morning of peace and meditative prayer rather than a push to change the government. Still, the event was reminiscent in many ways of the energetic opposition rallies that were held during the election campaign season and in the weeks following the contested vote.
Chants of “peace and justice” were intermingled with calls for change as Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy both blasted the administration of Prime Minister Hun Sen in their speeches.
“We need Cambodia to have justice, freedom and to get out from under communist dictators,” Mr. Sokha said. “The demonstrators have already warned that if there is no solution, we will keep demonstrating. And at the next demonstration, we won’t only sit still.”
Mr. Rainsy added that if the government does not heed opposition demands for justice regarding the contentious election results, non-violent demonstrations would spread beyond Freedom Park.
“The forest is destroyed and other natural resources are destroyed, they [the ruling CPP] are torturing our mother. We should come together in solidarity to help our mother,” he said.
“From this day, the culture of non-violence will spread across the country.”
Many in the crowd wore yellow headbands and carried signs that read, “My vote, my country,” “Where is my vote?” and “We need an independent truth committee.”
Since the National Election Committee [NEC] released preliminary election results showing a victory for the CPP, the opposition party has insisted on the creation of an impartial commission to investigate what it alleges was an election beset with irregularities that benefited Mr. Hun Sen’s party.
Negotiations between the CNRP and CPP over the formation of such a commission stalled when the ruling party insisted on the NEC, which the CNRP has claimed was complicit in election flaws, leading the investigation, and ruled out a leading role for the U.N. or NGOs, one of the opposition’s key demands.
Despite strong warnings from the authorities that they would tolerate no infraction of the rules governing the CNRP’s rally, there was a minimal police presence at the demonstration. Scores of military police lined the roads around Freedom Park and riot police were on standby in nearby streets with water cannon trucks stationed at several locations downtown.
Leaders of Cambodia’s Buddhist orders also told monks to abstain from attending any political protests, though hundreds of monks dressed in orange and saffron were visible in the crowd, and a small group were on stage to lead prayers before the speeches by the opposition leaders.
Keo Somaly, a monk from Phnom Penh’s Neakvoan pagoda, said that the monks in attendance were not scared of the warnings of punishment from the Buddhist hierarchy should they attend.
“We want to join and we want to change the prime minister. Right now we want peace with justice, with freedom,” he said.
Young opposition supporters expressed some reservations this week about the CNRP’s decision to organize a pray-in rather than an outright demonstration, but thousands of enthusiastic youth were in attendance.
Thy Sovantha, a young CNRP activist, said that the demonstration was only the beginning of a campaign to get the government to begin acting on the opposition’s demands.
“Today, [the CPP] will listen a little, but day by day they will listen a lot. We are asking for our votes because our votes are for our nation,” she said.