Police maintained a subtle, and mostly unarmed, presence at a rowdy opposition rally that filled Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Monday, despite persistent tensions over last month’s contested national election and a beefed-up security presence around the city.
Even as the crowd swelled to well over the 6,000 people the Interior Ministry had ordered attendance be capped at, the relatively few police and military police deployed around the park made no attempt to turn supporters away or break up the crowd.
Deputy municipal military police chief Pong Savrith said his officers all came unarmed to avoid accusations of appearing too aggressive and because they had no reason to expect trouble from the crowd, which had turned out to hear CNRP president Sam Rainsy speak.
“They are decent people, so there’s no need for us to bring weapons,” he said. “We are trained to use our hands for these kinds of crimes. We can get them with our two bare hands.”
Soldiers were also out. Dong Samnang said he was one of 120 soldiers recently redeployed to Phnom Penh from Battambang province and also assigned to help watch over the rally.
“We’re here to ensure public order. We’re here to prevent and crack down on robbers and the like,” he said. “We’re here to crack down on anyone who might be an opportunist and try to commit a crime or robbery.”
Even Daun Penh district security guards had been deployed to keep the streets around the park clear of street vendors, though all manner of food carts quickly clogged the area.
“Our responsibility is to make sure that no street vendors cause any traffic jams on the street,” said Por Seng. “If we see a seller come and they cause a jam, we just tell them to keep moving and stay out of the area.”
National Police spokesman Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith said about 200 national police had been assigned to the event as well.
According to the CNRP, more than 200 party volunteers were on hand to help with traffic. Like the district security guards though, they appeared to have little effect as the streets around the park remained nearly impassable for the duration of the rally.
All the while, state security forces maintained a quiet distance.
“If we get too close, they will accuse us of intimidation,” Mr. Savrith said. “Instead, we stand far away and monitor. We’re here to protect the people, not to work for any party.”