Cambodia opposition begins 3 days of protests

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia ­— Thousands of people took to the streets of the capital in a blazing afternoon sun Wednesday to demonstrate against the government’s longtime ruling party accused of corruption and voter fraud.

The protesters, supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), are challenging the results of Cambodia’s July 28 national election. The group alleges that the election was full of irregularities, including the removal from voting rolls of more than 1 million voters.

The CNRP had its strongest-ever showing in July, winning 55 of 128 seats in parliament, but is convinced that the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which has held power for more than three decades, kept down its vote totals.

Headbands with slogans such as “Where’s My Vote?” and “Long Live Democracy,” the marchers were led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy to the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

There they delivered boxes full of petitions carrying more than 2.3 million thumbprints of petitioners demanding an impartial investigation of the election.

Lima Orn, 34, a piano teacher in Phnom Penh, and his friends were handing out handmade stickers that said “Khmer (Cambodians) need to love Khmer. We need true justice and democracy.”

“Don’t cheat us,” he said. “You cannot do this to our nation anymore.”

Sieng Vam, a 28 year-old student came from Prey Veng province, about 80 miles away, to join the march.

“The CNRP is seeking the truth,” he said. “There’s no justice.”

Protesters planned to deliver official petitions to several other foreign embassies over the next two days, including the U.S. Embassy.

U.S. Embassy spokesman Sean Macintosh said the embassy would follow its normal procedures in accepting the petition from the CNRP but it did not support one political party or candidate over another.

“The United States urges both parties to seek resolution of electoral disputes through peaceful dialogue that serves the best interests of the Cambodian people and promotes reforms,” he said.

France, Australia and Japan have acknowledged the victory of CPP, which is led by strongman Hun Sen. But the USA and other European countries have withheld their congratulations. Since the July election, the CNRP has refused to take its seats in the government.

“Hun Sen presided over a fundamentally flawed election,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “Democratic leaders should skip the congratulations and instead insist on an independent investigation into malfeasance at the polls.”

Wednesday’s protest was the third since the election. It went far better than the previous demonstrations. In September a protester was killed and several were injured in skirmishes with police.

While most observers agree there were serious improprieties in the election, not all are certain that an appeal to the international community will bring results.

“The world is going to work with the Hun Sen regime,” said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. “The most realistic thing is to … focus on real grievances — land seizures, abuses of power — and use these against the government in support of reform.”

Despite solid economic growth in recent years, serious issues of corruption, land seizures and human rights violations have caused wide discontent. Cambodia ranked 157th out of 176 countries in the 2012 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index.

Meach Sovannara, a parliamentary candidate and media director for the CNRP, said Wednesday’s protest brought out 60,000 people.

“This is incredible,” said Mu Sochua, CNRP leader who won a parliamentary seat in July. “We’ve opened a new page in the culture of Cambodia. Non-violence, treating people with respect.

“Here is hope, here is freedom. Everywhere else is darkness.”