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Rallies test patience

Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters gather at Freedom Park and fly flags during demonstrations in Phnom Penh
Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters gather at Freedom Park and fly flags during demonstrations in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

Rallies test patience

Opposition party leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha led a few thousand of their supporters in a vociferous parade around the city early yesterday evening with scarcely a hint of police or security forces, but a government spokesman said yesterday that such restraint won’t be permanent.

The worst that the joyous, and at times feisty, parade of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and flag-waving pedestrians calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down encountered yesterday were impatient motorists.

But as protests wrapped up for the fourth consecutive day, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan hinted that the patience of the authorities could soon run out.

“The government is for all the public interest, and we will do whatever the public interest needs,” he said.

“So right now, we let the [Cambodia National Rescue Party] educate themselves; we just remind them that [their protests] are an abuse of the law and the public interest. [But] once the public interest cannot stand it anymore, we can act.

“We have a demonstration law and we have a standard. But acts in Freedom Park are very provocative . . . like they have burned an [effigy] of Hun Sen. It’s as if they learn from terrorists in the Middle East. Demonstrations [should] be completely different from rebellion or terrorism.”

Such words might come as a surprise to protesters making the daily pilgrimage to Freedom Park since non-stop demonstrations began on Sunday and who spent most of yesterday being entertained by magicians, comedy

troupes and singers. Many also witnessed party leader Sam Rainsy playfully driving a tuk-tuk down Sihanouk Boulevard during yesterday’s parade.

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha did, however, call for more supporters to attend demonstrations so the CNRP could begin blocking national roads – a move that will raise the prospect of confrontation with authorities.

“We must call for justice until we are successful. If [our call] is not successful, we will not withdraw. We agree to sacrifice our life for justice,” he told protesters at about 6pm after the rally around town, with numbers at Freedom Park swelling to well over 5,000 as city residents finished work and school for the day.

“Hun Sen is hearing us. Please, all of you shout loudly, ‘Hun Sen must go’,” he said.

Kong Sova, a 46-year-old teacher who has made the trek out from his Kandal home every day, shared the sentiments of many protesters – most rugged up in coats and jumpers due to the cold weather – when he said that his commitment to the demonstrations was not waning.

“I will keep coming until Hun Sen goes out or we are allowed to have a new election, even if that means I come here for three months,” he said.

While those options have been the major rallying cries of this week’s protests, party leader Sam Rainsy yesterday explained that the CNRP would prefer an electoral investigation.

“We have three options: the first one is an investigation to expose the truth related to the last election, but since the CPP refuses this . . . we have to move to the second option, a new election . . . and if Mr Hun Sen and the CPP continue to refuse the organisation of a new election, then we will ask him to resign and stand down.”

Despite that ambitious wish-list, government spokesman Siphan yesterday rejected each of the CNRP’s presented options as being “baseless” according to the constitution and the election law.

“We will reform for future elections. We understand that. It’s a done deal that there will be reform for the new election. But if they want something against a done deal [as agreed between the parties in September], they are offending the King and offending the constitution,” he said. “It would be like a revolution.”

Rainsy rejected such suggestions.

“There is nothing relating to overthrowing any government at all. [An investigation or election would either] be confirming the CPP in power or [lead to] a democratic transfer of power. Right now, what we are doing has nothing to do with organising riots, occupying public buildings, creating disorder, etc,” he said.

In a statement yesterday, the National Election Committee responded to a report from a coalition of election watchdogs known as the Election Reform Alliance, which the CNRP said provides “very clear evidence” of massive fraud and bolstered their call for a new election.

The NEC maintained that it had “fulfilled its role and obligation” in accordance with the election law and only conceded that “a small number of officials at some polling stations did not fully fulfil their obligations” in relation to sealing ballot packages.

“However, the NEC still welcomes all recommendations on election reform. And [we] are already prepared to join the National Workshop on electoral reform which will be hosted by the government at the end of December 2013 or sometime in January 2014,” the statement said.

Separately, Monday will mark three months since the National Assembly was inaugurated by King Norodom Sihamoni with 55 opposition lawmakers absent.

The ruling party has previously hinted that it might have legal grounds to re-distribute the opposition party’s seats after that deadline, though legal experts have questioned that interpretation.

De-facto ruling party spokesman Cheam Yeap said yesterday that the National Assembly had yet to officially decide whether its president, Heng Samrin, would write a letter to the Constitutional Council or the NEC about the boycott come Monday.

“If [the CNRP] boycotts forever, it is impossible, but the [CNRP] has also not given up their seats or resigned. This is very difficult, as the law does not state this [situation] specifically,” he said.

NEC secretary-general Tep Nytha said yesterday that the NEC would examine any such request from the National Assembly, but added he was unsure if such a decision would be under the legal purview of the NEC.

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