A crowd of more than 100,000 demonstrators took to Phnom Penh’s streets yesterday, calling for new elections or the resignation of Prime Minister Hun Sen in the biggest outpouring of support for the Cambodia National Rescue Party since opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned from self-imposed exile in July.
“We will not stop the protests if our demands are not met,” CNRP vice president Kem Sokha told the crowd at Freedom Park before the march. “I would like to appeal to all of you to stick to nonviolence during the rally.”
Estimates of the size of the crowd varied widely, with Rainsy writing on his Facebook page that “about 500,000” people had joined the march. “A political tsunami has started in Cambodia,” Rainsy told supporters before the rally began.
Even the government, which usually provides conservative figures of attendance at opposition protests, recognised the scale of yesterday’s demonstration.
Long Dimanche, Phnom Penh Municipality spokesman, said he estimated that about 100,000 people took part in the march.
“We are watching the people who are joining the rally. We estimate about 100,000 people joined the demonstration, not 500,000 as the CNRP has claimed,” he said, adding that the “inflated” figure of 500,000 included mostly bystanders and people stuck in the traffic.
Rally-goers were in high spirits as they left Freedom Park at about 2:45pm and headed south along the arterial Monivong Boulevard.
After more than an hour spent at a standstill, the march continued, turning right onto Mao Tse Toung Boulevard, then north past Olympic Stadium and back to the park.
In a good-humoured jab at the powers that be, one demonstrator dressed as Santa Claus held aloft a placard comparing Prime Minister Hun Sen to a Christmas turkey.
“I want to wish Hun Sen to have a Merry Christmas and step down,” he said.
A significant contingent of monks, increasingly visible at post-election rallies, joined yesterday’s demonstration. The monks have been warned repeatedly by Cambodia’s Great Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong that taking part in the rallies could lead to defrocking.
Rainsy raised the issue of monks becoming politicised after the rally yesterday evening.
“I have received information that the authorities plan to ill-treat monks, because they are concerned that the monks will protest at every pagoda,” he claimed.
The CNRP has said it plans to block several major roads into the capital as part of the daily protests, which enter their ninth day today, and the temporary blockage of one of the city’s main thoroughfares came under fire from the authorities yesterday.
“The road users were held hostage,” City Hall’s Dimanche said. “We understand they [protesters] have the right to exercise their freedom, but they are violating others’ rights.”
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said that while it was the right of people to demonstrate, if public order was affected, armed police may be forced to intervene.
“Holding peaceful demonstrations is the right of people stated in the law,” he said. “But if the demonstrations seriously affect public order and security…it will be necessary to take action to guarantee social stability.”
The opposition maintains that protests will continue daily until a new election is called or Hun Sen steps down. But in an address to the nation on Friday, the Cambodian People’s Party leader dismissed calls for his resignation.
“I would like to confirm that there will be no new election, because no one can dissolve parliament,” he said in the speech, adding that he had “done nothing wrong” and therefore did not need to resign.
He also slammed the CNRP decision to block roads in the capital.
“[Blocking roads] does not affect the royal government, or institutions of the state; it affects people; it is an illegal act,” he said. “Blocking of roads is the blocking of our blood. The royal government has remained calm to respect the rights of people to hold peaceful demonstrations. But the government will not agree with any…illegal act.”
Kem Sokha responded to Hun Sen’s speech after yesterday’s rally.
“[Hun Sen] said that he has not done anything wrong. If he says this, come to meet with people here [at Freedom Park] so that people can tell him about his mistakes.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA