Rainsy Evokes Gandhi as Example for Opposition

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy on Thursday publicly announced the opposition’s intention to conduct a campaign of civil disobedience in line with peaceful demonstrations organized by the charismatic leader of Indian nationalism Mahatma Gandhi, who helped win independence from Great Britain.

Mr. Rainsy made the remarks at a press conference at the CNRP’s office in Meanchey district and said the civil disobedience would occur if the CPP continues to refuse calls for an independent investigation into alleged irregularities during the July 28 national election.

“We take Mahatma Gandhi as an example,” he said.

“We will show people the documentary on Mahatma Gandhi so that people understand how Mahatma Gandhi got independence from the British 50 years ago,” he said. The film was screened at Freedom Park at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Mahatma Gandhi helped India win independence from Great Britain in 1947 by conducting an extensive campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, which included strategic peaceful protests.

Mr. Rainsy said on Wednesday that he had yet to decide how Gandhi’s lessons might be adapted to Cambodia.

“I myself am in learning process so I cannot draw any specific conclusions [on how we will conduct civil disobedience]. I have to see and judge for myself what would be appropriate in the Cambodian context,” he said

“We will see through the film on Gandhi how they refused to serve any administration that does not serve the people. This is to educate not only the party leadership but the whole population and potential protesters about the seriousness of Gandhi,” he added.

While Mr. Rainsy has seen a surge in his party’s popularity after the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party merged last year—winning 55 National As­sembly seats in last month’s national election compared to 29 in the 2008 ballot—political analysts called into question the potential success of civil disobedience by the CNRP.

“I am not sure if the personality of Sam Rainsy is comparable to the personality of Gandhi in those days,” said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay.

“I am still doubtful whether he could mobilize that many people to take part in this action—or inaction—the same way that Gandhi did in India in the 1940s. This is a completely new action to Cambodian culture,” he said, adding that peaceful demonstrations on their own may be effective.

“If there is no compromise between the CPP and CNRP, then the opposition is staging those demonstrations to put more pressure on the CPP to sit down together and talk. Otherwise, the CPP could go ahead and form a new National Assembly, and a new government as well,” he said.

“And whether [the government] is legitimate depends on strength of demonstrations. Without legitimacy, I think it is very difficult for the new government to rule the country,” he added.

Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said that peaceful demonstrations could be effective, but were a risky strategy against an authoritarian regime and a relatively immature and unprincipled movement for change.

“Peaceful Demonstrations are brinksmanship because they can get out of hand. [The CNRP] has to make careful calculations as to whether this would provoke security forces, but they might want that,” he said.

“Demonstrations get publicity and if [Prime Minister Hun Sen’s] regime reacts with batons and police beat people over the head, Hun Sen loses and opposition wins because opposition gets international sympathy,” Mr. Thayer said, adding that Mr. Rainsy may not be able to control his supporters in the same way that Gandhi did.

“Gandhi is the saint of real non-violence and was very careful with the demonstrations he was doing. If Sam Rainsy’s purpose is to evoke repressive tactics I don’t think Gandhi would be happy with that. I don’t think [Mr. Rainsy] has the charismatic authority over the people who follow him to remain disciplined,” he said.

Chea Vannath, another political analyst, said she thought that mass demonstrations were the wrong direction for the opposition movement to choose in their attempts to bring about government reform.

“Unless they have any tangible results, it won’t work, it won’t last. Peaceful demonstrations work only in countries that are fully democratic. Then it works. But not in the Cambodian context,” she said, adding that she believed that the majority of voters for both parties would prefer a political solution, a sentiment that has been expressed by King Norodom Sihamoni and civil society groups.

“So far, the King sends the message about the two parties needing to work together to come out with a plausible result. NGOs send the same message: not to send out military tanks and army and not to call for demonstrations,” she said.

However, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said that the appetite for mass demonstrations among opposition supporters is overwhelming, a fact that was supported by the turnout of about 20,000 people at an opposition rally in Phnom Penh on Monday.

“The voters came out, 20,000 to 30,000 of them asking us, ‘when will we demonstrate?’ It is time for us to be active, otherwise voters will get impatient,” Ms. Sochua said.

“There is a group [of CNRP supporters] that would prefer that we don’t demonstrate and we will sit down [at the negotiating table with the CPP], but what we are talking is an investigation [into election irregularities],” she added.

“Exactly what the CPP wants is for us to sit down and make a political deal. That would be the end of the CNRP at this moment.”

In preparation for the protests, about 100 party members and provincial activists from the opposition CNRP also gathered in Phnom Penh on Thursday to re­eive training on how to ensure that mass demonstrations planned for September 7 do not turn violent, according to party spokesman Yim Sovann.

“We just get some advice from the trainers on how to be patient and conduct non-violent practices like the peaceful demonstrations in India,” Mr. Sovann said.

Mr. Sovann declined to disclose who the trainers were, saying only that they were “from NGOs.” Mr. Rainsy said at a press conference Thursday morning that the CNRP is “learning from foreign experts” about how to ensure peaceful demonstrations.

According to Mr. Sovann, leaders of provincial working groups and a special committee formed to organize peaceful demonstrations took part in a three-hour course, where they learned how to keep demonstrators calm and prevent potential provocateurs from inserting themselves into the crowd.

“We will write down the internal regularities of the demonstrations, how to remain disciplined, and inform [participants] before the demonstration starts,” Mr. Sovann said.

“They have to try to be patient as much as possible. In case of any crackdown, they have to be calm, not to act in any violence and we also have people observing any abnormalities during the rally,” he added.

Mr. Sovann said the CNRP also has a plan to prevent outside elements from joining protests in an attempt to make them appear unruly or violent, a concern raised by Mr. Rainsy earlier this week.

“We will form small groups and people who are responsible for each of these small groups of 10 to 20 people. They all have to know each other,” he said.

“I can’t tell you all of the points because some of our plan is secret,” he added.

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