Students Urge All Sides to Keep Election Protests Peaceful

More than 200 students and opposition supporters marched Sunday around Phnom Penh’s Wat Phnom with flowers in hand, urging parties to refrain from violence during Saturday’s protest against last month’s contested national election results and for recent incitement charges against two students to be dropped.

The morning march, organized by a group of like-minded friends via Facebook, came amid the opposition CNRP’s preparations for mass protests set for Sep­tember 7, the day before the National Election Committee is to release final results almost certain to show a win for the ruling CPP. The opposition says it will go through with the demonstrations unless the government agrees to an independent investigation of the election, which both parties claim to have won but remains mired by reports of widespread irregularities.

The government has redeployed hundreds of troops to Phnom Penh and held special training sessions for security forces ahead of the protests, and has warned the CNRP that any ensuing violence would be its fault.

Heng Samnang, one of the organizers of Sunday’s march, said he expected the protests to remain peaceful but worried that the government will plant people in the crowds to stir up trouble.

“We’re not afraid and we will do everything according to the law,” he said of the coming demonstrations. “But we are afraid someone will sneak in and cause problems.”

Mr. Samnang, a law student at the National University of Management, said the group planned to spread its message of non-violence by handing out lotus flowers to police and soldiers around the city over the next few days.

That same activity got four people arrested on August 15, including a pair of students. Though the four were soon released on bail, they remain charged with incitement. The government accuses them of having links to a U.S.-based group of dissident Khmer-Americans that the government has branded a terrorist organization, though rights groups and lawyers say it has no evidence of criminal intent or behavior.

Dilen Hin, who took part in Sunday’s march, said they were hoping to raise more money and gather more supporters before handing out the flowers.

“It also depends on political circumstances; it could be too sensitive at the moment,” he said. “But definitely we’re going to do it.”

At the end of the half-hour march, the group collected signatures and bright red and blue thumbprints on a petition asking for the incitement charges against the two students, Tut Chanpanha and Sok Dalis, to be dropped. Mr. Hin said they planned to submit the petition to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today.

The pair was arrested while picking up 1,000 yellow roses, which the leader of the U.S.-based group, Sourn Serey Ratha, had arranged and paid for.

Rights groups have called the charges against all four suspects baseless and also urged authorities to drop them.

Chiv Vouchtheng, whose two young daughters trailed her around Wat Phnom, said she was eager to join the pending protests despite the mounting fears of violence.

“If there is no solution I will join the mass demonstration,” she said. “Sooner or later we will die, so we are not afraid of joining. We will join for the prosperity and development of our country.”

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