The opposition has settled in for the long haul. With temporary occupations of Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park having proven fruitless, thousands of Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters took to the park once again yesterday, this time vowing to remain on the site until the government agrees to hold new elections.
However, though opposition leaders were optimistic that supporters would continue to turn up in droves for the occupation and accompanying daily marches, some attendees at yesterday’s demonstration were unsure how long they could hold out, and observers maintained that the appeal and influence of the protests was on the wane.
Speaking to the crowd, CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha challenged the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to put its money where its mouth is and back up its claims of victory in July’s national elections by holding a new vote.
“If the Cambodian People’s Party boasts that it won the election, it must dare have a new election,” Sokha said. “We will not wait for five more years; [we] must have a re-election in 2014. If we don’t, it means that the Cambodian People’s Party lost.”
Sokha added that the CNRP would extend the CPP a three-month deadline for organising new elections, after which the party would implement a new strategy to press its case, a strategy upon which he did not elaborate.
However, opposition lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua yesterday said that the ultimatum didn’t necessarily close the door on negotiations.
“One thing we reiterate is that we are willing to sit down, but in good faith,” Sochua said. “Don’t ask us to come to parliament without agreeing to what kind of reform there’s going to be.”
That could prove just as well, as some demonstrators at yesterday’s rally said they were unsure how long they could sustain their participation.
As Kandal province resident Phan Sroeu, 60, put it: “Coming daily is impossible, because of a lack of money for travelling.”
Fellow Kandal resident Kuong Tuy, 70, said that while he had the means to join the daily demonstrations, many in his village couldn’t afford to do so or couldn’t leave their work.
Hea Sruo, 69, also from Kandal, said he would have to limit his involvement “because it is the season for farming”.
Uy Neang, 65, and Khat Reth, 67, of Kampong Cham province, made a similar point, saying their nearby forests had been logged, cutting them off from their source of income, and making it more difficult for them to afford the trek to Phnom Penh.
“I want to come so much, but I have no money,” Neang said.
One attendee, a member of the armed forces who works in the Ministry of National Defense, said he would have to organise his protest participation around his work schedule, even though he faced little politically motivated resistance from his superiors.
“Some [army] bosses support the CNRP … but in secret support with money, support the idea,” said the official, who asked to be identified only as Kimhour.
“When they are free, they come here. When I finish my job, I come here.”
However, observers yesterday were sceptical as to whether the demonstrations would have much impact. Political analyst Kem Ley said that without a new spark the current protest was unlikely to last.
“Even if the CNRP tries to organise a long demonstration, right now the feelings of the people are reduced – not like after the election, not like attending the first demonstration,” he said. “For me, the CNRP needs a new strategy … if they do the same, people will come less and less, and after a few days the demonstration will be closed.”
Carl Thayer, an emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales, said the latest round of protests was unlikely to draw a broad base of support, apart from a small group from CNRP leader Sam Rainsy’s “band of loyal supporters”.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan maintained yesterday that if the CNRP wanted to hold a new election, it would first have to join the National Assembly.
“[Making] demands on the side of the road is not the way to resolve things in a democracy, because when we have to resolve something, the constitution is the proper way, as they decided in 1993,” he added.
Yesterday’s rally also included an uninterrupted march, which Siphan said was indicative of the government’s patience towards the opposition.
However, yesterday evening, Phnom Penh City Hall issued a letter to Rainsy and Sokha, saying the CNRP’s demonstration was in contravention of three points of the agreement the party made with the municipality when it sought permission to use Freedom Park: firstly, that it had held a march instead of confining itself to the park; secondly, that it was planning on staying in the park overnight; and thirdly, that it had indefinitely extended the demonstration without asking permission.
“For the wrongful acts, such as anarchy, the [Cambodia] National Rescue Party must be responsible for all kinds of incidents, especially for security problems, public order and environmental cleanliness, which stems from this illegal activity completely,” the letter reads.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH