Mere hours after 2,000 geared-up riot police practised crowd-control measures and tested their water cannons on Koh Pich, some 700 opposition supporters gathered across town to make their own preparations for Saturday’s mass demonstration.
With role-play the order of the day at the Cambodia National Rescue Party-run practice rally, it was a somewhat less-disciplined affair than the early-morning display in Chamkarmon district.
Assembled in neat rows of about 100 participants, half the group was asked to assume the role of the security forces, while the other, peaceful CNRP demonstrators.
An initial test run of a possibly confrontational scenario, where the giggly “demonstrators” charged into a “police” wall, was deemed to be too aggressive by the party officials leading the training session.
“We found that the behaviour of our protesters was aggressive. We have to know how to calm our feelings and not push the riot police,” CNRP lawmaker Ho Vann told the crowd through a loudspeaker.
“Our aim is to hold a peaceful demonstration, so we have to be more patient and create more dialogue with the police.”
Lieutenant General Chuon Sovann, chief of the Phnom Penh Municipal Police, told reporters yesterday that the Koh Pich training session was designed to ensure safety and was not a sign that there would be a crackdown on peaceful demonstrators.
The police "have been provided with additional training today on how to maintain and protect security, safety and public order for the city as the CNRP holds a massive demonstration,” he said.
“It is the right of the people, if the law allows them, to hold peaceful demonstrations. Therefore, we have an obligation to ensure safety for them and [protect them] from outside disturbances.”
Sovann added that the CNRP would be held responsible for any violence caused by the protestors.
“I think it would be dangerous if someone hidden among the demonstrators set up an explosive to use against our forces,” he said.
Although the opposition’s training session yesterday was light on specific techniques or instructions on how to respond to an outbreak of violence, the party also released a “code of ethics” yesterday as a guide on how to demonstrate.
Included in the 17 points are warnings about avoiding language that could lead to either racial incitement or incitement to violence, an order for protesters not to bring any weapons or objects that could be used to cause harm, as well as a ban on alcohol.
“The Cambodia National Rescue Party will absolutely not take any responsibility for protesters who do not respect the code of ethics. Individual protesters have to take responsibility for any [personal] act that goes against the law,” the statement says.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the first practice demonstration – a second is to be held on September 5 – was designed to teach protesters how to stay calm.
“[It’s about] how to be peaceful, how to behave normally and how to deal with the situation. [We need] to keep our minds quiet and patient in case there is violence,” he said.
The attendees were recruited via Facebook and the Phnom Penh Municipality sanctioned the training session, Sovann said.
Although only 500 to 1,000 people were expected, according to Sovann, close to a thousand onlookers, in addition to the 700 or so taking part in the training, turned up at Freedom Park yesterday.
Following suggestions from the ruling party last week that the planned demonstration is “disguised” as being against election irregularities but could perhaps be designed to oust the government, the CNRP sought to clarify its position over the weekend.
In a statement released Saturday, the party reiterated that the protest will call for the establishment of “a joint, independent investigating committee to resolve irregularities”.
The Cambodian People’s Party has already rejected any such committee without the involvement of the National Election Committee, which said weeks ago that it was too late to investigate electoral complaints.
“The CNRP vehemently denies any baseless allegations that the 7th September nonviolent and peaceful mass demonstration has the objective to topple the government,” the statement says.
The CPP on Saturday – in a letter sent from party president Chea Sim to Sam Rainsy – said it was always willing “to hold top-level meetings with the CNRP”.
Opposition party officials yesterday said, however, there had been no concrete steps in that direction.
For its part, the government released its own statement yesterday, backing a Friday plea by King Norodom Sihamoni calling for disputes to be solved based on the constitution.
It also issued a series of “appeals” that included asking all foreigners living in the Kingdom to keep away from election protests and for all media, including social media, to avoid sharing “false, exaggerated, frightening, inciting and instigating news”.
In a sign that the warning to foreigners has gained traction in some quarters, the British government has advised its citizens to avoid Saturday’s demonstration.
The government’s statement also issued a clear message to the armed forces, asking them to uphold the “highest standard of morality, virtue, patience” in dealing with protesters, while avoiding violence at all costs.
Chan Thy, a 29-year-old who attended the CNRP’s training session yesterday, said that she won’t be scared come Saturday.
“I have to be patient for the peaceful demonstration and I have to be calm. But if the police fight me, I will fight back for the CNRP,” she said.
Chea Ly, a young monk who said he wants the demonstration to follow the philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi, was more contemplative on how he would respond.
“If a policeman hits me, I will [just] sit down. I will never run away,” he said.