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'Mass demonstration' a restrained affair

Sam Rainsy speaks at Freedom Park
Sam Rainsy addresses thousands of supporters at Phnom Penh's Freedom Park on Saturday. PHA LINA

'Mass demonstration' a restrained affair

AFTER weeks of heightened tensions caused by an increase of troops and armored vehicles on the streets, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party’s highly anticipated mass demonstration remained a peaceful affair today, though leaders cautioned there may be more to come.

The thousands of opposition supporters who poured into the capital’s Freedom Park in the early morning spent most of the demonstration sitting down – at times, in prayer – as police watched on.

In an event that resembled the CNRP’s previous rallies at Freedom Park, opposition leader Sam Rainy called for the government to recount votes in disputed provinces or stage a re-vote if this is not possible.

“We need to see in black and white that the people of Cambodia want justice and freedom,” he said. “We need freedom and change. This gathering is giving everyone a chance to express this.”

Underscoring how little the CPP has responded to the opposition’s demands, Rainsy continued calling for a joint committee to be formed to investigate irregularities, an idea proposed the morning after the election.

“We hold this non-violent protest to find justice for voters and demand the creation of an independent committee, consisting of national and international organisations – including the UN – to resolve election irregularities.”

Rainsy also reiterated his desire for King Norodom Sihamoni – who will arrive back from China next week – to intervene if the CNRP’s claims of election victory are not recognised.

The National Election Committee will announce official results tomorrow and is expected to uphold the CPP’s claims of victory, 68 seats to the opposition’s 55.

But Kem Sokha, vice president of the CNRP, called for the NEC to delay its announcement until a committee is formed to solve irregularities.

In an accompanying statement, the CNRP said resolving the issue was beyond the NEC’s mandate, because it had “caused all of these irregularities”.

“The committee should comprise a member of the two main political parties, civil society, international organisations and the UN to probe these irregularities and the NEC’s mistakes,” the statement says. “If there is no such committee formed . . . the CNRP will continue to hold mass, non-violent demonstrations until a solution is found and justice is given to the voters.

Before the opposition toned down its rhetoric last Monday, the words “mass demonstration” had led many to think today’s event could get heated.

But Rainsy’s claim that the gathering would be as much a group prayer session as anything else turned out to be prophetic.

Despite their superiors banning their involvement in mass demonstrations, scores of monks showed up in support of the opposition. At times, they sat in prayer. They also chanted and cheered along with everyone else.

Protesters, including youths, the elderly and civil servants, spent much of the demonstration sitting on the ground, clutching lotus flowers and signs.

Two groups acknowledged as providing crucial support to the opposition at the ballot in July – garment workers and land evictees – were also in strong attendance.

They were represented on stage by Cambodian Confederation of Unions president Rong Chhun and Boeung Kak lake activist Tep Vanny, respectively.

Som Virak, 23, a university student who lives in Phnom Penh, said he had learned through listening to independent radio that the election had been filled with irregularities.

“I’ve just come today to find out where my vote is. What happened to it?” he said, adding that if so many had not gone “missing”, the CNRP would have won.

Although military and police presence in the crowd was moderate, hundreds of troops and police were deployed on streets leading into the capital.

Yon Sineath, a human rights observer at the event, said police had set up roadblocks at various points around the city and made it difficult for many to make it to Freedom Park.

“Some police have tried to block people – and monks, too,” she said.

While Rainsy praised the number of supporters who had come from outer provinces, he said demonstrations had also been held in other parts of the country.

“Today, we join together to meditate for peace, freedom and justice,” he said.

Kheng Tito, national military police spokesman, praised protesters for remaining calm and said police had carried out their tasks of providing security and controlling traffic.

Tito said officers were prepared for further demonstrations, but he did not expect many would be held.

“I don’t believe people who came today will keep showing up all the time. They’ll be exhausted and bored,” he said.

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