When Kem Sokha returned to Freedom Park yesterday afternoon, the crowd erupted into cheers. Thousands were on their feet and scores of flags waved as the Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy president made his way onto the stage to the strains of a composition by late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
Even though the flags and fanfare may have been intended for Sokha, the voice singing through the towering speakers to the tune of 23 October belonged to 23-year-old Chan Kosal.
As a child, Kosal contracted polio, a condition that left him with a pronounced limp that requires him to use his arms to position his left leg. It was also as a child, he says, about the time his father died some 13 years ago, that he first came to care about politics.
“As you know already, Cambodians under the control of the dictator government for more than 30 years have lived without freedom, peace and justice, because the authorities always make violence – threaten them,” he said.
“I’m involved with the CNRP in order to demand justice and freedom, and to change the leader of the government, because the government nowadays is a dictatorship.”
Kosal is sometimes on stage for hours, often sitting, but always performs on his feet, leaning forward towards the crowd with his hand propped on his knee.
“It is difficult for me to stand when I sing a song, but when the protesters are cheering I feel happy, and forget the sorrow, because of the abomination of the absolutist government,” he said.
Kosal had his heart set on being a singer for years, but had to largely go it alone.
His disability did not endear him to his mother’s new husband, and at 14 he was forced to leave his family home to live in a centre for orphans in Kampong Chhnang town.
He started attending an English class run by what was then the Sam Rainsy Party, and it was there that he first met opposition lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua in 2007.
“I felt that he was very sharp, very curious – curious about the world map. He wanted to know what this country was, what that country was,” she said yesterday.
“Then later on, I found out he can sing,” Sochua added.
“So he followed [the CNRP] on the entire campaign in 2013.”
Since then, Kosal has become a fixture at opposition rallies and campaign stops, singing pro-CNRP songs with a coterie of mostly young artists who perform for the crowds at the often jovial gatherings.
As Sochua puts it, Cambodia’s still “a society that is not very open to people with disabilities”, and for someone like Kosal, life can be difficult.
“That’s why I thought of putting him on stage, to show that he is part of us,” Sochua said. “And you know I sing along, I sing on campaigns, so we easily pair up.”
For Kosal, that’s all he ever wanted to do.
“This is what I wanted ever since I was young, and now I have success in my life.”