The opposition CNRP on Friday put the finishing touches on plans for its long-awaited demonstration against the contested results of July’s national election, a gathering that is expected to draw tens of thousands of supporters to Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Saturday morning.
Despite an order from Phnom Penh City Hall to keep the crowd to 10,000 and police stationed at checkpoints to search vehicles and passengers entering the city, the opposition party said it expects at least 20,000 supporters to take part.
Amid persistent government warnings that the event may turn violent, the CNRP has toned down its rhetoric over the past week, switching from talk of protest to calls for peace and prayer.
The CNRP is continuing to demand that the government agree to an independent investigation of the July 28 vote, which the National Election Committee (NEC) has said was won by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP despite unresolved reports of widespread irregularities.
Despite the entrenched positions on both sides of the political divide, opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said Friday that she expected the demonstrations to go off without any trouble.
“If there’s any violence we wanted to do, it could have happened many, many, many times,” Ms. Sochua said at the CNRP’s offices in Meanchey district, where party supporters were busy making CNRP flags, stacking stickers, writing up banners and tearing up sheets of mustard yellow cloth for headbands.
“We are positive, we want to remain positive. We are talking about the whole nation working together, and the nation wants nonviolence,” she said.
Ms. Sochua said she believes that the message had also reached the armed forces, who in past weeks have engaged in a number of crowd control drills replete with riot gear and water cannons.
“I think the police will be respectful,” she said. “We have called for nonviolence, and I think the message has gone to the police. Even the guy who is driving the tank, if there will be tanks, we want to honor everyone. We are part of building peace, not violence.”
At the Ministry of Defense on Friday afternoon, a group of about 50 opposition supporters attempted to hand out lotus flowers as peace offerings to about as many security personnel gathered outside, a gesture they hoped would help ensure a peaceful demonstration.
None of the police officers armed with batons and riot shields accepted the flowers.
The army last month moved at least six cannon-mounted armored personnel carriers into the city amid the political tension but has since kept them out of sight.
Around the city on Friday, however, police continued to man checkpoints that went up along all major roads leading into Phnom Penh to search vehicles and passengers for weapons.
The CNRP says the checkpoints are meant to scare supporters away from attending its demonstration. Ms. Sochua said the CNRP has stationed its own members at each of those checkpoints to monitor if authorities prevent people from entering the city.
She said she had not heard of any such cases yet, but the party is advising those who are prevented from entering the city to demonstrate on the spot. “We want to make sure that people can come into” Phnom Penh, she said.
“However, if they are still harassed, if they are still intimidated, if they’re still stuck, then we have instructed people to sit down and sit in wherever they are stuck. So if that happens, there will be small demonstrations wherever it happens.”
Phnom Penh municipal officials have also told the CNRP to cap attendance at Freedom Park at 10,000 people.
“If they have more than 10,000 people, it is illegal,” City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said. But what might happen if the crowd exceeds that figure would be up to the higher levels of government, he added.
National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith batted that question back to City Hall.
“We don’t have any procedure to send people in or out” of Freedom Park, Lt. Gen. Chantharith said.
“We are the police. We have only the duty that everybody is safe and people demonstrate peacefully.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party had no intention of sticking to the government order.
“I can’t limit the number of people who come to join because this is a national demonstration, so we have the right to our freedom of expression,” he said. “Everyone has the right to join.”
The government, however, appears no more ready to agree to an independent investigation of the July 28 vote than it was the day after the election, and when the NEC announces final results on Sunday, it is all but guaranteed to place victory with the CPP.