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PM defends Water Festival cancellation

Boat racers in Svay Rieng province on Sunday.
Boat racers in Svay Rieng province on Sunday. Vireak Mai

PM defends Water Festival cancellation

Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday stood by his reasons for cancelling this year’s Water Festival, blasting critics who suggested that he cancelled the annual event to prevent a volatile gathering of opposition party supporters in the capital.

Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of a new drainage system in Phnom Penh, Hun Sen insisted that the cancellation was indeed due to low water levels. He said that the current river depth of 4.2 metres around the capital is not deep enough for rowboats.

“Last year, the water was low as well, but we celebrated, even though the water was only 6 metres high. The rowers found it very difficult to row their boats,” Hun Sen said. “Seven, or a bit more than seven metres, would be fine for rowing.”

A boat race organiser in Battambang this week said that rowers there had been able to race in spite of drought, and that two or three metres of water would be sufficient to float the traditional vessels.

Since the cancellation was announced, multiple analysts had called the premier’s explanation a smokescreen.

Hun Sen’s true intention, they said, was to avoid a massive influx of crowds into the capital, and the potential backlash against the public beatings of two Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers and the ouster of Kem Sokha from the first vice presidency of the National Assembly.

But Hun Sen yesterday said such statements are “unbearable insults”, and called those who espoused them “arrogant”.

“Do not say that politics are behind everything,” he said.

He added that though there are no boat races, fireworks, exhibitions and concerts will go on as usual.

Independent political analyst Meas Ny said that if low water levels were truly behind the cancellation, the country would have known about it months ago.

“The announcement of the cancellation should have been done last month, or at least before the [recent] political crisis", he said.

To the contrary, the decision came less than two weeks after Hun Sen personally promised the festival would take place.

According to Ny, Hun Sen could not predict what would happen if opposition leaders and supporters gathered in Phnom Penh.

Harsh speeches by CNRP leaders could have prompted their arrest, which would lead to escalating riots.

“But now, [CNRP leaders] are quiet and Hun Sen is more confident in arguing that the cancellation was because of the lack of water,” he said.

The Water Festival has been cancelled four times in the past five years.

“The more they decide to cancel it, the more people will lose interest, and step by step, the culture will be fading away.”

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