odong district, Kompong Speu province – As government officials led an estimated crowd of 10,000 in celebrating the Buddhist holiday Meak Bochea at the hilltop Odong Pagoda on Monday, demonstrators completing a three-day march for freedom of expression were prevented from joining the ceremony.
Co-Ministers of Defense Tea Banh and Nhiek Bun Chhay sat side-by-side with opposition leader Sam Rainsy at the ceremony, while other expected guests of honor—-King Norodom Sihamoni, Prime Minister Hun Sen, Senate President Chea Sim and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh—failed to attend.
“It was some part of the implementation of the compromise, being here,” opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said of Sam Rainsy’s appearance at Odong. “We expected some of his colleagues to be here as well, but for some reason, they did not turn up.”
Sam Rainsy Party officials also joined Cambodian Center for Human Rights President Kem Sokha and Free Trade Union President Chea Mony to lead several hundred activists and union members, and more than 50 monks, on the last leg of a 40 km march for freedom of expression and nonviolence.
Though military police and police officers questioned students wearing yellow ribbons—signifying freedom of expression—and diverted marchers attempting to attend the official Buddhist ceremony, Kem Sokha and others said the march was a success.
“Although our arms and legs are sore, we tried to walk to reach the goal with the support from people along the road. It shows that even though there are obstacles, when the people are with us, we can reach the goal,” Kem Sokha said.
Opposition party member Mu Sochua said that, although Sam Rainsy made only a brief appearance at the rights march, he would not abandon the issue of free expression.
“We are the victims, and sitting next to Tea Banh without a [yellow] ribbon doesn’t mean we have left our principles,” Mu Sochua said.
“But there is a new kind of dialogue that maybe Cambodian people are not used to seeing,” she said.
Demonstrator San Heng, 68, who came from Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district on Monday to join the procession, said the marchers’ message would be heard, even if top government officials were not there to meet them.
“This is a strong message-we walked here in three days…. Those people took a Land Cruiser and came here in 15 minutes,” he said.
“It shows that we will work hard for freedom of expression.”