SA’ANG DISTRICT, Kandal province – A little over a month after supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen forced the cancellation of an opposition party rally here, CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha returned to address followers and promise that the change that swept away Ukraine’s president would soon sweep over Cambodia.
Speaking to about 600 local supporters from a tarpaulin-covered stage on a small plot of land in Troeuy Sla commune, Mr. Rainsy told his audience that Cambodia would soon be free of dictatorship in a manner similar to what unfolded recently in Kiev when months of civil unrest toppled Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovich.
Describing current events in Ukraine, Thailand and elsewhere as a “cycle of change” sweeping across the world, Mr. Rainsy said the secret to the success of such movements is when members of the armed forces no longer follow orders to kill their own people.
“Around the world, dear people, and in the country next to us and far away from us, dictators who mistreated the people have lost their positions. Soon it will be the dictator’s turn in Cambodia,” Mr. Rainsy said to raucous applause.
“The protesters were shot to death, but the protesters still came out in public both day and night,” he said, referring to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine.
“Some of the police chiefs thought that they should not listen to the dictators, or take orders from the dictators and kill the people…. That is when they detached from the dictatorial leaders and sided with the protesters,” he said.
“The dictators are no longer in power,” he added.
“I believe the armed forces in Cambodia also love the country and have their blood among us all. Next time, when we hold the protest, will they still dare to shoot at us?”
Though Mr. Rainsy did not name Prime Minister Hun Sen in his speech, his references were pointed, promising that it was still not too late for the subject of his speech to “step down.”
“The example of Ukraine, we should all think about it. And for the dictators themselves, it is not too late yet. If you are too cruel, it will seriously affect your own futures,” he said, noting that opposition protests will remain peaceful in the face of state violence.
“If you want a solution without bloodshed and cruel activity, you should stop because one day the people who take orders from you will get tired, wake up, and they will stop,” he said, claiming that millions will join future rallies organized by the CNRP.
“The next demonstration will not be 200,000, but 2 million. So, be ready to make it 2 million and it will be the same as Ukraine. There will be no armed forces shooting at protesters. They [the armed forces] will be hand-in-hand with the protesters.”
CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha, who took to the small makeshift stage in the sweltering afternoon heat in Sa’ang before Mr. Rainsy, also promised that “change will soon come to Cambodia.”
“No one can change Cambodia’s changing course,” Mr. Sokha told his supporters.
“We have to change the leaders no matter what.”
The opposition leaders’ fiery speeches came a day after Mr. Hun Sen announced that he had reinstated the constitutional right to freedom of assembly, which he suspended after military police killed five striking protesters and wounded more than 40 on January 3.
However, Mr. Hun Sen also warned that wherever the opposition gathers in protest, supporters of his ruling party would be present too. Keeping supporters of both parties apart might require walls being built at the public gathering area known as Freedom Park in Phnom Penh, Mr. Hun Sen joked on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, however, only a handful of local police and military police officers were at the CNRP rally in Sa’ang, directing traffic around the meeting site and occasionally turning their attention to the opposition speeches as the crowd let out the occasional shout: “Hun Sen Oi! Choh chenh tov.” (Hun Sen, get out.)
Troeuy Sla commune police chief Long Pheaktra, on duty at the rally, said his superiors ordered the small security presence of just seven officers.
On January 21, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha were forced to call off a meeting in Sa’ang district when several hundred farmers, as well as burly young men with close-cropped haircuts in civilian dress, supported by riot police and armed military police officers, turned out in a blunt show of support for Mr. Hun Sen’s ruling CPP. The CPP supporters said they would not allow the CNRP meeting, or the airing of any public comments critical of the prime minister.
Asked why pro-CPP supporters had not rallied in a similar manner to a month ago, Mr. Pheaktra, the commune police chief, said he did not know.
CPP parliamentarian Cheam Yeap accused Mr. Rainsy of pushing the country toward “unrest and civil war” by equating the situation in Cambodia with that of Ukraine.
“Sam Rainsy’s greed will destroy society,” Mr. Yeap said.
“The people of Cambodia are different to the people in Ukraine. The problem in Cambodia comes from the losers of the election: Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha,” he said. “This is incitement.”
But Ukraine was also on the mind of CPP Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Wednesday.
Delivering a speech at the closing of the Phnom Penh Municipality’s annual meeting, Mr. Kheng simultaneously expressed regret for the killing of bystanders and protesters by armed police and military police in three incidents between September and January, and said the deadly action was merited.
“We regret the loss of life at Kbal Thnal, Wat Stung Meanchey, and at Veng Sreng Street. But, the matter didn’t happen by itself,” Mr. Kheng said.
“We had a clear reason to solve this problem [of protests],” Mr. Kheng said.
“We cannot take risks, otherwise the situation would become serious. For example, in Ukraine the president was voted out of power and the situation there is getting very serious. We cannot let problems develop as serious as that,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Phann Ana and Khy Sovuthy)