Despite an official warning not to demonstrate and a heavy security presence, opposition leader Sam Rainsy led more than 500 people in protest Friday against the National Assembly’s vote to approve government-selected candidates for the new National Election Committee.
The demonstration tottered on the edge of a serious confrontation with Intervention Police and Military Police riot units as the protesters pushed through five attempts to stop them.
But in a rare display of Cambodian police restraint, the riot squads—decked out with batons, shields, helmets and body armor—did not resort to violence as Sam Rainsy, his parliamentarians and hundreds of marchers surged through their lines.
The only baton seen yielded in anger was an exasperated Military Police colonel who grabbed a truncheon from one of his subordinates and began to hit his own men on Norodom Boulevard, apparently to motivate the use of force against the peaceful marchers.
Sam Rainsy was unsuccessful in bringing the protest to the National Assembly, but was visibly jubilant as his two-hour cat-and-mouse game with police wound through Sihanouk, Monivong and Norodom boulevards before returning to his party headquarters.
“When communism collapses, it shakes first. Today, there was a tremendous shake,” Sam Rainsy told the marchers by loudspeaker outside his party headquarters.
Sam Rainsy blasted the NEC vote, claiming Prime Minister Hun Sen personally attended the National Assembly to ensure the vote passed.
“The government success was very weak. Hun Sen was afraid so he came [to the National Assembly] and asked his officers to vote,” Sam Rainsy said.
The National Assembly overwhelmingly elected the five dignitaries chosen by the Interior Ministry to head the NEC, which was forced to re-constitute itself after severe criticism of its alignment with Hun Sen’s CPP during the 1998 national elections and the commune elections.
But even before the vote, the new NEC line-up—which includes former NEC secretary-general Im Suosdey, as its chairman, Nge Chhay Lieng as his deputy and Mean Sati, Koy Vet and Sin Chum Bo—was not seen as neutral because it was nominated by the Interior Ministry.
Of the 89 parliamentarians present at the National Assembly, the minimum needed to reach an quorum, 85 voted in favor of the candidates, three abstained and one vote was ruled invalid.
All 15 Sam Rainsy parliamentarians boycotted the vote while a further 15 Funcinpec assembly members were also absent.
“This victory is a message to voters that we have a new mechanism, and a new message to the boycotters that they represent a minority and the majority now leads,” Hun Sen said.
UN Development Program representative Dominique McAdams will meet with Cambodia’s donor community to secure financing for the NEC and next year’s election, Hun Sen said.
National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh praised the vote.
However, Funcinpec parliamentarian Keo Remy said he and other party members boycotted the assembly vote, which he branded a travesty.
“I am very sorry that the National Assembly approved the same [NEC] model as 1998. I don’t think they will work independently and give justice to the people. They were selected by the ruling party,” Keo Remy said.
Sam Rainsy said on Friday he will demonstrate over the Asean Summit, particularly the participation of Burma, and hold a hunger strike to protest the lavish expense the government poured into the summit preparations at a time when Cambodian farmers face food shortages after recent floods and devastating drought.
(Reporting by Lor Chandara, Yun Samean, Seth Meixner and Kevin Doyle)