Government officials, thousands of monks and Prime Minister Hun Sen himself will hold a massive prayer ceremony at Angkor Wat in early December to highlight the Kingdom’s continuing “peace, independence and political stability”, a spectacle observers said was designed to disguise the deterioration of Cambodia’s political situation.
In an almost universally condemned move, the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the nation’s largest opposition party – was dissolved by the Supreme Court last week for allegedly attempting to mount a purported “revolution” to topple the government.
Former party President Kem Sokha has been jailed on widely decried “treason” charges, and numerous opposition officials have fled the country fearing arrest. Meanwhile, NGOs have faced heightened scrutiny from the government, independent media outlets have been shuttered and plans to redistribute the CNRP’s 55 National Assembly seats will effectively disenfranchise nearly 3 million voters.
But in announcing the ceremony yesterday, the premier said it would prove that “everything is running normally”.
The event will take place at the famed temple site on December 2 and 3, and will involve giving alms to between 5,000 and 7,000 monks, with the general public invited to witness the event.
“This shows that Cambodia is not in anarchy or a country at war,” Hun Sen said in a speech yesterday. “It is a country with peace, independence and political stability, and everything is running normally.”
A similar announcement was made by the Apsara Authority, which runs the temple complex, with Deputy Prime Minister Men Sam An and Culture Minister Phoeung Sakona observing the preparations on Tuesday.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan claimed the event had nothing to do with the CNRP’s dissolution, calling it an annual occurrence. But Siem Reap Deputy Governor Sang Riha said such ceremonies were only held on special occasions.
“Every year we pray only if there is an event, like the Ploughing Ceremony. This time we pray for happiness for some other reasons,” Riha said.
Using Angkor Wat – a ubiquitous symbol of national pride that adorns the Cambodian flag – as the stage for the ceremony was meant to hark back “to traditional culture to foster a sense of unity”, said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia.
“The CPP has always used Cambodian culture and religion to bolster its rule, and Hun Sen’s pilgrimage to the symbolic heart of ancient Cambodia looks like a clear attempt to fortify the new status quo by asserting continuities to the past,” he said.
Former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua, who fled the country after being warned of her imminent arrest, said she supported Hun Sen’s praying as long as it meant a return to normalcy, complete with CNRP officials being allowed return to their jobs. “I will join him if he prays for that,” she said, noting that the situation was not at all normal. “If it was, I would not be in exile.”
Political observer Cham Bunthet declined to comment on the symbolism of the event, but said that trumpeting peace and economic growth missed the point. “Cambodia, politically, is not fine,” he said.