Despite the fact that Saturday’s CNRP demonstration was framed as a day of prayer, the gathering was not lacking in the enthusiastic calls for change that have come to define the united opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.
Some 20,000 opposition supporters turned out to take part in a carefully choreographed demonstration that promoted the values of nonviolence, peace and justice—along with the urgent need to oust the long-ruling CPP from power.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy and vice president Kem Sokha were joined by religious leaders, rights activists and representatives of victimized communities in delivering a series of stirring speeches that often brought the seated crowd to its feet.
And although the CNRP said the rally was a day of prayer for justice, rather than an outright demonstration, the event had the makings of the raucous opposition campaign rallies that were held in the month leading up to the July 28 national election.
Many in the crowd—ranging from the youth that formed a core part of the opposition’s demographic this election, to elderly supporters—were decked out in yellow headbands and holding signs that read “My vote, my country,” “Where is my vote?” and “We need an independent truth committee.”
In between speakers, calls for “peace and justice” were intermingled with cries for change and musical interludes during which the crowd wildly waved signs and flags above their heads.
After kneeling before a row of monks and receiving a blessing along with other CNRP leaders, Mr. Rainsy began his speech by evoking the spirits of some of Cambodia’s most beloved former leaders, including King Jayavarman VII and the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
However, meditations on solidarity and justice quickly transitioned into calls for change in a government in which Mr. Hun Sen is pushing to begin his fifth 5-year mandate in power.
Mr. Rainsy said that if the government does not heed opposition demands for justice by launching an impartial investigation into contentious election results, nonviolent 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 nonviolence will spread across the country.”
Mr. Sokha said that the country needed to free itself from the CPP, which was initially installed by Communist Vietnamese forces that toppled the Khmer Rouge, by demanding an investigation into an election that the CNRP claims to have won.
“We need Cambodia to have justice, freedom and to get out from under Communist dictators,” he 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.”
Despite strong warnings from the government that CNRP demonstrations presented a high risk of violence, there were very few uniformed police at the rally, and no serious clashes between CNRP supporters and government forces.
Nonetheless, 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. Groups of riot police remained stationed throughout the city on Sunday.
Hundreds of saffron-clad monks joined the demonstration despite warnings from leaders of Cambodia’s Buddhist hierarchy telling them not to participate in political protests. A small group of monks sat on stage to lead prayers before the speeches by the opposition leaders began.
Keo Somaly, a monk from Phnom Penh’s Neakvoan pagoda, said that the clergy in attendance were not scared of threats 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.
Thy Sovantha, a young CNRP activist, said that the demonstration was only the beginning of a campaign, which CNRP leaders announced Sunday would continue with three more days of demonstrations next week, 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.