SRP Inflation Rally Draws Fewer Than Expected

The SRP carried through on its promise to hold an anti-inflation demonstration Sunday, but it was a far cry from the “massive” event the opposition party had advertised, with only about one-tenth of the ex­pected 5,000 participants showing up.

Originally planned to be a march starting at Phsar Thmei, the SRP made an agreement with the au­thorities not to march in exchange for a reduced police presence around the rally, which was held outside the National Assembly.

Even so, there was a strong cordon of police on the outskirts of the road leading to the Assembly and at the park across from Wat Bo­tum, some sporting helmets and body armor. Municipal police chief Touch Naruth said by telephone Sunday he had deployed 400 police to provide security—nearly as many officers as there were protestors.

Speaking at the protest, SRP President Sam Rainsy took the government to task for what he said was an inability to tackle rising costs at the market and the gasoline pump.

“We are gathering in front of the National Assembly today in order to demand the government re­duce the price of goods in order to protect the people’s living standards,” he said. “We do not only demand the government reduce gas prices, but we also demand the government raise the workers’ and civil servants’ [wages].”

Sam Rainsy dismissed a government statement broadcast on state-run TVK in recent days placing the blame for high prices on international trends, saying that incompetence and corruption in the government were the main culprits.

CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who chairs the Assembly commission on banking and finance, said by telephone after the rally that the government was already working diligently on bringing down prices.

He said that he felt “ashamed” for the SRP to draw so few people to the rally, claiming that it reflected a general disenchantment with Sam Rainsy.

“I was working in my [Assembly] office, and I saw only about 200 people. Sam Rainsy hired them to go,” Cheam Yeap said.

The SRP leader and opposition officials did address turnout during the rally, claiming that police were blocking supporters from outside Phnom Penh from coming to the rally as well as discouraging locals by gathering officers in numbers outside the protest area.

“The municipality did not respect its promise-next time we will march,” Sam Rainsy told the crowd.

Speaking to a reporter at the rally, SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said that the party was not surprised that turnout was low given the restrictions placed on them by the authorities.

She added that even if they did not draw 5,000 people to Sunday’s event, the party had distributed 30,000 copies of the demonstration’s platform in the capital to a strongly positive response.

Demonstrator Sok Yin, 70, of Kandal province said that police stopped the vehicle that she and 20 other rally-goers were traveling in.

“Police and military police did not tell me why I could not go” into Phnom Penh, she said, adding that she eventually had to walk past police and catch a motorcycle taxi to join the rally.

Touch Naruth denied that police had blocked anyone from participating in Sunday’s rally, or that they were an intimidating presence.

“Police were deployed to protect social security,” he said, adding: “I did not allow my officers to equip weapons.”

Touch Naruth accused the SRP of being the one to break the agreement with authorities by marching the few hundred meters to the park across from Wat Botum for a short ceremony at the stupa honoring the victims of the 1997 grenade attack on a Sam Rainsy-led demonstration.

“The original agreement was to take a car to the stupa,” he said.

Political observer Chea Vannath said by telephone Sunday that a variety of factors likely contributed to the rally’s small size, which, she added, is not necessarily an indicator of dwindling support for the SRP.

She noted that the government has made efforts to lower rice prices and has heavily promoted these efforts on radio and television. Also, strong police crackdowns on protest activity since the 2003 anti-Thai riots have discouraged large-scale demonstrations. In addition, she said, the SRP’s most effective demonstrators are factory workers, but garment workers nationwide just received a pay increase last week, making inflation a less pressing issue in their minds.

But, she said, this does not necessarily mean that the SRP is out of touch or lacks support, but rather that the issue of economic dissatisfaction (if it is widespread) will more likely be addressed at the ballot box instead of in the streets.

“In Cambodia, you cannot count on the number of people at a demonstration to get a…sense of the society’s thinking,” she said.

 

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