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March seen as a step forward

Opposition march arrives at UNOHCHR
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party arrives at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh to present a petition of two million thumbprints this afternoon after marching with thousands of supporters from Freedom Park. Daniel Quinlan

March seen as a step forward

Analysis

While the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s continued push for an investigation into election irregularities may at times feel quixotic, the fact that the opposition was able to hold a peaceful demonstration today without incident represents a perhaps equally important victory for freedom of assembly.

The Ministry of Interior’s decision to allow 1,000 opposition protesters to converge on foreign embassies and offices of the UN was important, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said, but the fact thousands marched in peace was even more significant.

“I don’t want to say it’s a victory for the CNRP,” he told the Post. “But it’s a victory for the people. We’re making big progress.”

Freedom Park, Sovann added, was becoming a place the opposition felt it could use on a regular basis to keep pushing forward with its demands of an investigation into irregularities at July’s national election. 
And boycotting the parliament was showing itself to be the right decision, he added.

Political analyst Kem Ley said the government’s approval of the marches was, indeed, a victory for the CNRP and agreed that it vindicated the opposition’s boycott of the National Assembly.

“Right now, it’s good for them. They have organised this, and the government has opened the door to them,” he said.

The CNRP had drawn more attention to its cause and the CPP now had little choice but to continue allowing similar protests, Ley added.

“In order for the CPP to increase its popularity again, they must respond to the people.”

The freedom to protest on the streets or in public parks has fluctuated greatly over the past two decades.

Incidents have ranged from the brutality of the 1997 grenade attack on opposition members and supporters – which killed 16 and injured more than 100 – to an unprecedented 17-day park sit-in, organised by opposition supporters, in 1998. 

In scores of other instances, protesters have been blocked from marching through the streets or been beaten by police.

Yesterday’s march was the biggest that Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, has seen. 

“We’ve got to get used to this. It should and will be a lot more common,” he said. “If the authorities realise that not all protests lead to revolution, they might be more willing to allow them to take place.”

But even if such protests do represent a victory for the CNRP, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said yesterday that the government will still be approving them only on a “case-by-case” basis.

“It will depend on discussions and the agreements reached [between the government and the CNRP],” he said.

The ministry had decided to allow this week’s marches because they coincided with the anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and protesters and police had pledged not to be violent.

“And I think it is nothing to be concerned about, because the number of participants has weakened.”

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