The first day of campaigning on Friday for the district, city and provincial council election was marked by violence, but ended with dancing in front of the Royal Palace after a CNRP rally meandered through Phnom Penh during the afternoon.
A planned march by the opposition CNRP from their Meanchey district headquarters to Freedom Park was revised after Daun Penh district security guards once again attacked a group of CNRP officials, supporters and journalists waiting near the park on Norodom Boulevard.
Determined to prevent any gathering near the locked down public park, security guards throughout the afternoon sporadically chased away anyone who tried to stop near the gardens east of Freedom Park, injuring at least five people in separate attacks.
Among those injured were Nhay Chamroeun, a CNRP lawmaker-elect in Kompong Cham province, and Lay Samean, a reporter for Voice of Democracy.
Mr. Chamroeun, who was attacked at about 3 p.m., said by telephone Friday evening that he sustained a fractured skull and injured left leg at the hands of the helmeted parapolice, armed with batons and metal bars.
“I told them I am an MP [member of parliament] and they said they don’t care and started to beat me up,” he said, adding that he would speak with party leaders tomorrow about whether or not to file a lawsuit against the municipal security force.
Ouk Pichsamnang, a bystander who stepped between the security guards and Mr. Chamroeun, received an even worse beating, being dealt multiple blows to the head and body.
Soon after being attacked, Mr. Pechsamnang said he had only meant to protect the opposition lawmaker-elect.
“I just want to help His Excellency [Mr. Chamroeun],” he said. “Although they attacked again, I will still continue to demand my democratic rights.”
About an hour later, security guards surrounded the Venerable Luon Sovath, a monk who regularly films protests and opposition rallies, a scene that reporters from VOD moved in to capture.
But when the journalists approached, the security guards turned their attention to them and began to chase the reporters, eventually pummeling Mr. Samean after he fell to the ground.
“At that time, our reporters take the photos and when police saw that they turned back to attack us,” said Nop Vy, director of media at VOD. “Our reporters run away, but unfortunately one of our reporters slipped and fell so the police attacked him.”
“We wear our identity cards and press card from Ministry of Information, but even though they saw our press card, they still fight,” Mr. Vy said, adding that Mr. Samean was being treated in the hospital for injuries including a broken cheekbone.
Back at CNRP headquarters, opposition supporters set off on tuk-tuks and motorbikes at 3:30 p.m. for a campaign rally that grew in size throughout the afternoon, peaking at more than 1,000 people when opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha met up with the march at 5 p.m.
Looping around central Phnom Penh, past a three-deep line of military police blocking Sihanouk Boulevard at Street 51 and barriers blocking the road to the National Assembly, the CNRP rally came to a stop in front of the Royal Palace on Sisowath Quay.
Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha stepped onto a large truck stacked with speakers, which had been blasting music throughout the rally, and addressed about 500 opposition supporters while rows of military police looked on.
Struggling to follow an edict from the National Election Committee (NEC) not to attack other political parties during the campaign, Mr. Rainsy repeatedly said his party was not fighting against the ruling CPP, but rather trying to protect the nation.
“If we stand by the CPP, they will not solve all the problems and the nation will be destroyed,” Mr. Rainsy said, adding: “Please don’t think this time I am attacking anyone.”
“I want to declare to people who voted for the CPP, let’s work together to help the country. I’m not taking this time to attack, only to call on Cambodians to work and love together,” Mr. Rainsy told the crowd.
After brief speeches from Mr. Sokha and opposition lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua, Mr. Rainsy once again took the microphone and, with music playing from the speakers, told people to join him in a celebratory dance.
With the hundreds of military police forming a line across the garden in front of the palace, the crowd of CNRP supporters began to thin out and traffic was once again moving along Sisowath Quay shortly after 7 p.m.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that the CNRP’s campaign Friday was a violation of NEC directives not to use the campaign period for public demonstrations.
“This is not right because we told them already [not to campaign in public] but we will compile a complaint to the NEC to find a solution to stop or not allow the campaign,” he said. “But that does not mean we will crack down.”
Ms. Sochua said that opposition leaders would lead another rally tomorrow afternoon, beginning at 4 p.m. after Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha return from a campaign rally in Prey Veng province.
During the two-week council election campaign period, “every afternoon at 4, the two leaders will be campaigning every day,” she said.
As CNRP officials and supporters were facing off with security guards Friday afternoon, Ms. Sochua, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha paid a visit to the U.S. Embassy, where they met with Ambassador William Todd, according to Ms. Sochua.
“We meet on a regular basis, not only with the U.S., but also the E.U. ambassador because we are extremely concerned with the use of the security guards and their show of violence in the past few days,” she said.
“The U.S. and E.U. keep the same stance, there is one united voice—together we want the opening of Freedom Park. Freedom Park has to be for the people,” Ms. Sochua.
U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh declined to comment on the conversation between Ambassador Todd and the CNRP leaders, but said the U.S. remained concerned about the state of democracy in the country.
“We don’t have any involvement with the political campaigns here. The embassy is concerned with the democratic process in Cambodia,” Mr. McIntosh said.
“As much as we can help, we will continue to ensure that democracy is the first order of business and the Cambodian people benefit,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns and Mech Dara)