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CNRP supporters cheer during a political rally in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park
CNRP supporters cheer during a political rally in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park. HONG MENEA

Protest gets injection of energy

What had been a relatively subdued gathering at Freedom Park yesterday became a jubilant celebration as opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha delivered the news of fruitful discussions with the government to party faithful.

Despite much-diminished crowds – and the sobering events of Sunday night still fresh in demonstrators’ minds – thousands nevertheless broke into song and cheers as Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy president Sokha told supporters that the Cambodian People’s Party had agreed, at least in principle, to reforms of the National Election Committee, touting the accord as much for its implicit admission of fault as its actual content.

“We have reached an agreement that is positive, and that is the wishes of the Khmer people,” Sokha said. “If the Cambodian People’s Party agrees to reform, to change this mechanism, it means that the present mechanism of elections is not correct.”

However, political analyst Kem Ley said yesterday that given the lack of specificity in the two delegations’ joint statement, he was unsure whether the accord would be significant “unless the opposition party designs details for the reform of the NEC, and designs the order for the investigation of the irregularities”.

Although the streets around Freedom Park were still teeming with people yesterday, the park’s main plaza was only at about half-capacity, a drop in turnout that Ley attributed to a combination of fear over Sunday’s violence, ongoing roadblocks and a diminishing sense of urgency among protesters as hints of compromise emerged.

But hints or no, both Rainsy and Sokha continued to vow not to take part in the formation of the National Assembly until election irregularities had been dealt with.

Indeed, the mood at Freedom Park yesterday was not necessarily one of conciliation, with many demonstrators, like tour guide Pen Chan, saying a political compromise would jeopardise the party’s aims.

“We have many things we need to change, but the most important is finding justice for the voters,” Chan said. “Compromise is not real democracy.”

Bin Yan, a political science student at Pannasastra University, said that the protests had come to be less about sharing power, and more about changing Cambodia’s political culture, which he characterised as being democratic in name only.

“The protest is not just for the seats, to gain more power in the government,” he said. “It’s about justice for the people.… I know that they say we have freedom of speech, but when it comes to politics, we have problems. We want all the freedoms.”

Going on to cite what he regarded as broken promises that had created a generation of “futureless and jobless” young people, Yan said yesterday that a compromise was out of the question, not least of all because the government wouldn’t agree to it since it “takes away [the CPP’s] advantage”.

Despite the celebrations over the progress in negotiations, Rainsy took time during his remarks to express his grief over the shooting death of 29-year-old Mao Sok Chan, killed at a clash between protesters and police on Monday night.

“We all have so much suffering, have so much regret, so much fear to see police, armed forces, use violence against citizens and shed the blood of fellow Khmers,” Rainsy said as he asked those gathered to observe a moment of silence for Sok Chan.

Protester Long Hann also expressed grief and concern over Sok Chan’s killing, but insisted that demonstrators would remain uncowed.

“In Cambodia, no one is happy about this,” he said. “It is very dangerous for me and for everybody here … but people are not afraid.”

Though Hann added that he would be happy to see negotiations between the parties continue, fellow demonstrator Bun Leng, 61, warned the CNRP against hasty compromise.

“If the [CNRP] has not found justice already, and joins a coalition government with the Cambodian People’s Party, we would hold a demonstration against it,” he said.

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