Thousands of supporters of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Saturday gathered in the South Korean city of Gwangju to hold a candlelight demonstration calling for the “liberation” of democracy in Cambodia.
Yim Sinorn, a CNRP member in South Korea, said on Sunday that an estimated 7,000 Cambodian migrant workers and party members from other countries joined in the protest.
He said this was more than expected, with only 4,000 candles prepared for the event.
CNRP “acting president” Sam Rainsy and party deputy president Mu Sochua were in attendance, he added.
Sinorn said Saturday’s demonstration was the second of its kind that CNRP supporters in South Korea had held.
They were modelled on the “Candlelight Revolution” protests held by South Korean president Moon Jae-in and his supporters in late 2016-early 2017 against his now disgraced predecessor Park Geun-hye.
“Our goal is clear. We set the goal to walk forwards to liberate democracy in Cambodia. Democracy in Cambodia is stuck and swallowed by the incumbent government. We have to force [the government] to release it."
“We want the release of Kem Sokha [from his treason charge]. Because of his arrest and the dissolution of the CNRP, democracy has gone backwards. If he was not arrested and the CNRP not dissolved, we wouldn’t have to demand anything,” Sinorn said.
Rainsy used the demonstration to appeal to supporters in South Korea to return to Cambodia with him to “take back” the Kingdom from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
He told the crowd to follow in the footsteps of protests held by South Koreans in Gwangju in 1980.
“Our determination is to take back Cambodia because Hun Sen and his family have robbed Cambodia from the Cambodian people. Is it true? So we have to struggle together to take Cambodia back for the people,” he said.
Rainsy repeated a previous message that he was determined to return and had invited all Cambodians in South Korea to go back with him. He said he and the Cambodian people would arrest Hun Sen and let the people judge him.
Ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Eysan on Sunday called the gathering a “crazy demonstration”.
He said Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in 2017 and national elections were held in July last year, while the demonstration was only held on Saturday.
“Isn’t it a crazy demonstration? If they shout madly like this, [they] could be sent back to Cambodia so that they won’t act so mad in that country [South Korea],” he said.
Analysts said holding demonstrations was freedom of expression, something protected by Cambodian law.
Social analyst Meas Nee said the number of demonstrators sent a message to both the ruling party and the CNRP.
For the CPP, Nee said, the fact that many people had attended the demonstration showed that the ruling party had not won the hearts of Cambodians working abroad.
But if the number of attendees had been small, he added, it would have sent a message to the leadership of the former CNRP that their support was now dwindling and something should be done to strengthen it.
“The problem is that there are conflicting media reports. The media aligned with the government said the number was smaller, but the CNRP said up to 10,000 people attended,” Nee said.
Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said it was normal for people to demonstrate and show their disapproval of the government on certain issues.
“I don’t think there will be any impact on the government because it is running smoothly. I think if the government were to hold a similar demonstration, the turnout would be a dozen times larger,” he said.
Meanwhile, Rainsy was awarded the “Champion of Democracy in the Kingdom of Cambodia” prize by the little-known Asia Human Rights Peace Forum, an organisation based in South Korea.
The award said Rainsy had “inspirational leadership and unwavering determination in paving the way [to democracy], and outstanding devotion in the struggle for democracy and human rights in Cambodia over the last three decades”.