The opposition’s mass protests scheduled for September 7 will take on a decidedly subdued tone, the party announced yesterday, with the thousands of anticipated participants taking part in a nationwide ceremony of prayer and “contemplation”.
Though Cambodia National Rescue Party leaders painted the decision as assenting to a letter from King Norodom Sihamoni calling for peace and calm – a move lauded by some analysts – others saw the tactic as softening the CNRP’s stance and robbing the party of its momentum.
“What we are calling a non-violent and peaceful demonstration would have the spirit of a ceremony of contemplation and prayer throughout the country,” opposition president Sam Rainsy said at a press conference yesterday morning.
“We must follow the King’s royal idea,” he added. “So we must not do anything that causes unrest. But we have the belief that there will be no unrest, no violence affecting public order.”
Rainsy went on to say that the demonstration – which will continue to call for the formation of an independent body to investigate election irregularities – will be held from 8am to 11am at Freedom Park, and added that the CNRP had called on those who participate in the ceremony to foreswear violent means.
He also admonished attendees not to carry anything that could be used as a weapon but rather to carry candles, incense and flowers.
CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha seconded Rainsy’s line, adding that if the government used force to crack down on protesters, it would be defying the King’s wishes, and hinted that demonstrations could continue as long as the party’s demands remain unmet. Rainsy also announced in the press conference that CNRP leaders had sent an election-related letter to the King yesterday, though he declined to give further details.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said yesterday that despite the focus on non-violence, the gathering “is still a demonstration”.
“I want to reiterate that it is still a protest.… We will still be singing, we will still have our slogans,” but within the limits laid out by the King’s letter, she added.
The wording of Sihamoni’s letter – which included a message that election disputes be resolved “by relevant institutions under the constitution and law” – prompted some speculation the King may have been asked by the Cambodian People’s Party to offer his support, given the letter’s similarity to the party’s official line.
When reached yesterday, however, Rainsy said that he didn’t want to hypothesise about the King’s motives.
“What I can say is that we respond to the King’s message – we respond in a positive way,” he said. “So the way we organise our gathering on the 7th is to reassure the King that we do not take any risks. He should not be worried because there is no risk of any violence whatsoever because it is not confrontational.”
And though Rainsy also insisted that supporters would “understand” the change of tack, young political blogger Ou Ritthy said that a three-hour ceremony of prayer and contemplation would be “pointless, actually”.
“I find the CNRP’s stance very hopeless because I don’t see any change after a peaceful prayer and meditation session,” he said yesterday, suggesting that civil disobedience – such as workers and civil servants boycotting their posts – would be more effective.
“The CNRP appeared to have this kind of non-violent approach, but they have changed,” he said. “The CNRP is slowly making the supporters become pessimistic and hopeless with the leaders.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay, however, said the new approach could “make political progress” and noted the parallels between the government training police in crowd control as the opposition trained supporters in non-violence. “[They] are playing a game of cat and mouse,” he said.
Kem Ley, another political analyst, also applauded the demonstration’s tone, and said it could send a positive message to local authorities.
“This is a very good strategy because it is safe,” he said. “This is a new thing for nationwide demonstrations.… It is a very good decision to teach the current decision-makers, to teach the public service providers, that demonstrations are not bad.”
But no matter how the request was delivered, said a high-ranking ruling party official who declined to be named, forming an independent committee to investigate election irregularities was impossible.
“No talking about the committee. The statement of the Cambodian People’s Party has emphasised this position clearly,” he said. “There is not any mechanism besides the existing mechanisms, and the law requires the [National Election Commission] and Constitutional Council to have complete authority. In a meeting to negotiate, [we] would talk about other resolutions – no more talk about the committee.”
Rainsy, however, held out hope yesterday afternoon, saying that a recent letter from CPP president Chea Sim “confirmed that the door is still open” but demurred when asked when he would resume hereto forestalled talks with the ruling party.
“It’s open,” he said. “You will see tomorrow; there could be new developments.”