Amid persistent opposition protests against July’s disputed national election, Prime Minister Hun Sen has canceled Phnom Penh’s annual Water Festival in November for the third straight year, apparently because of recent floods around the country that have killed at least 39 people.
The prime minister made the decision Sunday in a government decree citing the need to focus on recovery efforts from the floods.
“In order to gather all forces to solve this challenging situation, the government would like to advise as follows: First, suspend the Water Festival celebrations along the Tonle Sap river in front of the Royal Palace, which has been planned for November 16 to 18,” the decree says.
“Second, Water Festival celebrations can be held in other places in line with traditions and the ability of the people,” it adds.
The event, which usually draws well over 1 million people from the provinces to Phnom Penh to celebrate the river’s seasonal changing of course with longboat races and related festivities, was last held in 2010. That year, 353 people were suffocated or trampled to death in a stampede after organizers allowed too many festival-goers onto a bridge leading to Koh Pich island.
The government canceled the festival in 2011 due to heavy flooding across the country. It was also canceled last year in honor of King Father Norodom Sihanouk, who died of heart failure at the age of 89 in October, 2012.
The latest cancellation comes amid the opposition CNRP’s plans to continue protesting against July’s election, which it accuses the ruling CPP of stealing through fraud.
Unaware of the prime minister’s decree, CNRP vice president Kem Sokha invited opposition supporters at a rally in Phnom Penh on Sunday to attend yet another protest against the election immediately after the Water Festival.
Informed of the cancellation, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the flooding was a mere excuse intended to keep CNRP supporters in the provinces from joining the party’s future protests.
“He [Hun Sen] is afraid they will come to Phnom Penh and join the demonstrations,” he said.
Brigadier General Kheng Tito, spokesman for the National Military Police, which has participated in a security buildup across Phnom Penh since the disputed elections, denied the claim.
“Flooding is the only reason for this suspension, because the people now face difficulties,” he said. “It is not related to demonstrations.”
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap and Zsombor Peter)